Nina Simone: Fodder on my Wings (1982)

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The few albums that Simone recorded after her contract with RCA ended in 1974 are wildly contrasting in style and quality.  Baltimore (1978) is undoubtedly the best, a wonderful album that is alternately moving and joyful and, ultimately, one of the artist’s most accessible albums.  Fourteen years later, in 1992, she released A Single Woman, another wonderful album that would prove to be her swansong when it came to official releases.  Here, Nina managed to produce some wonderful ballad performances, elevated by the lush orchestrations and betraying no sign of her continued ill health.   The albums in between are troubled affairs.  1987’s Let It Be Me is a difficult live album, finding Nina in such poor voice that one wonders why she agreed to the release in the first place.  She had been videotaped at Ronnie Scott’s in London just three years earlier, and the deterioration since that performance is startling and heartbreaking (she is much better on A Single Woman).  1985’s Nina’s Back is wild mess of an album that sees Simone adopting the use of synthesiser’s, but the whole thing must have sounded dated even when it was released.

Even taking the above into account, Nina Simone’s most obscure studio album, Fodder On My Wings from 1982, remains something of a bizarre entry in her catalogue.  As with all the 1980s albums, it is uneven, but doesn’t deserve to be as little known as it is.  It is a strange, erratic concoction, though, which includes remakes of two songs that had appeared on Baltimore, and also songs that would later be remade on Nina’s Back.

The album opens with I Sing Just To Know That I’m Alive, an upbeat, rhythmical number that ultimately doesn’t quite take off in the confines of the recording studio.  A much better live version was captured a couple of years later and released as part of the Empress Live release, and a live version can also be found on the video recording of the Ronnie Scott’s performance from 1984.  That recording, like the whole Ronnie Scott concert, is rather subdued, but Simone is in much better voice and her sense of timing is much better, too.    On the studio recording, she tends to anticipate the beat and the whole thing sounds rather scrappy.

Fodder On Her Wings is another song which would fare better at Ronnie Scott’s, with the longer running time giving a chance for the song to really capture the listener’s attention fully.   While the introduction on the studio album is impressive, the vocal section seems cut short and it all ends just as it’s about to get going.  This is a fine song, though, supposedly about reincarnation, and one of Simone’s greatest efforts of the period.

Vous Etes Seuls, Mais Je Desire Etre Avec Vous comes next, and is one of the highlights of the album, despite the lyrics consisting solely of the title sung over and over.  But this is captivating stuff, starting with Nina singing alone, with the sound building up, layer over layer, with the effect being almost hypnotic.  One could certainly imagine this being given a new lease of life one day with an imaginative DJ taking Simone’s vocals and adding a dance track – I’m not sure I would approve, but it would work.

Il Y A Un Baume A Gilhead is a re-recording of Balm In Gilhead from Baltimore, but this is a more subdued affair, and it’s difficult to see what Simone was trying to achieve.  Liberian Calypso is a joyous romp telling of the singer’s time in Liberia.  But once again, this seems to work better in a live setting, with the videotaped performance from 1990 in Montreux eclipsing the one here, despite the fact that this one is solid enough.

Alone Again Naturally is a rather strange choice of material, with Simone writing new lyrics.  She obviously wanted to get the story of her father’s passing out of her system, but it makes for depressing listening, despite the fine vocal.  I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them changes the mood rather effectively, and this rhythm number is memorable for the intense, yet light, vocals and the rather infectious arrangement.   Color Is A Beautiful Thing is another rather odd addition to the album, also known as The Ding Dang Song, and running for less than a minute.

Le Peuple en Suisse is the best ballad performance on the album, although sadly the song lacks the hook required to make it as memorable as some of the other titles here.  Heaven Belongs to You is another Baltimore re-recording, and sounds more like a live performance as Nina addresses the listener before singing.  It’s fun, lively and infectious, but still isn’t an improvement over the original attempt.  Thandewye is a fine recording, drawing on Nina’s live repertoire.  In recent years, however, we have been treated to a previously unreleased live recording from nearly a decade earlier as a bonus on the CD reissue of It Is Finished, which features a stronger, more captivating vocal.  The erratic nature of the album continues with Stop, a song about the singer’s hatred of Send in the Clowns(!), before it reaches a bizarre conclusion with the thirty second snatch of They Took My Hand (aka  They Took My Teeth).

Reading back over my comments, the feeling that comes through most of all is that the album is a bit of a mess.  This is true, I think.  But it doesn’t mean that it is not enjoyable, in fact compared to records such as Emergency Ward and It Is Finished, it is remarkably accessible.  Most of all, despite all its flaws, it sounds like a Nina Simone record, which cannot be said for Nina’s Back.  No, Nina isn’t on her best form, and no, the song choice isn’t always the best, but somehow it works.  Despite the strange mix of styles, moods and languages, it somehow holds together as a cohesive whole.  It is something of an oddity in the Simone canon, but it surely doesn’t deserve to be as unknown as it is.

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HOMOEROTICISM AND “THE COLLEGIANS” (1926-29)

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In 1925, Wesley Ruggles directed a film entitled The Plastic Age, which starred Donald Keith as Hugh Carver, an athlete and freshman at Prescott College.  The film follows his story through his entire college career until he leaves, finally paired with Cynthia Day, played by Clara Bow in one of thirteen films she made in 1925.   The following year found Ruggles at Universal, and directing the majority of The Collegians series of over forty short films.  Over the next four years, the films would follow Ed Benson at Calford, doing his best to win over June Maxwell, the girl of his dreams.  Aside from Ruggles, many aspects of The Plastic Age were carried over to The Collegians, including the local place to party (“The Hula Hula Hut”) and Churchill Ross, whose small bit-part in the earlier film was developed into a major character in The Collegians.   The series centred around the athletic and handsome Ed Benson, played by George Lewis, with his nemesis, Don Trent, played by Eddie Phillips.  Of the forty-four films, only around a quarter survive today, but they make for enjoyable and fascinating viewing.

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On the surface, this series of films is a harmless, good-natured 1920s version of the campus comedy, with most episodes centring around sports events and often including student high-jinx.  And yet, to my eyes at least, there is something much more going on here.   Flashing Oars is a typical entry in the series.  Made in 1927, it centres on a rowing race between Calford College and their traditional rivals, Velmar.  As with many of the other Collegians films, the young men are often seen semi-naked and covered with sweat following their sporting activities, with their bodies on display in a way that is atypical for the period.  This is the case in the very first scene of Flashing Oars, as the boys are seen practicing for the race the next day, rowing shirtless down the river in two separate boats.  Both Benson and Trent are on the team for the race, but a phone call comes through to the dormitory later that evening to tell Benson that Trent has been seen out drinking.  Benson and the rest of the team leave the energetic pillow-fight which is taking place and make their way to the club where Trent is drinking in an effort to bring him back to the dorm to sober up.  This they succeed in doing (despite basically having to kidnap him in order to achieve their aim).  The next scene shows Benson and his team mates sobering Trent up by holding him under a cold shower.  Once again, both Benson and Trent are shirtless, with the camera angle not allowing us to see below their waist.  However, it is Benson who is in physical contact with Trent as he holds him under the water knowing that, despite the animosity and fights between them, they have to work together to win the race.  At the same time, the nerdy Doc Webster (played by Churchill Ross) is seen standing at the side of the showers holding Trent’s trousers in his hands, suggesting that Trent has been stripped of most or all of his clothes by the others.

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Doc (left, above) is a rather strange character within the series, occupying a place between nerd and sissy, with his sexuality indeterminate and exaggerated by his use of words when either watching sport or explaining how the body works to his fellow students (see above).  He is never seen dating a girl (at least not in the available films) and certainly has an unusually active interest in the sporting activities going on around him, considering he is portrayed as a geek and never partakes in any of them.  Therefore, while he is not a traditional sissy or a stereotypical gay character of the period, his role in the films can be seen as being the most un-masculine of the young male characters, although he is not seen to be bullied for this by the others.  His sexuality is clearly problematised by the fact that his interest in sport (but lack of participation) finds him constantly surrounded by sweaty, half-naked (and almost uniformly handsome) sportsmen.  He is to be found not only at training sessions and events, but also in the changing rooms while the men around him shower and get changed.

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The Relay (above, 1928) is a rather manic later episode in the series which concludes with a party in a restaurant which ends with most of the male characters fighting within a small indoor pool.  The homoerotic elements are upped considerably with comparison to previous episodes.  The boys literally tear each other’s clothes off during the course of the fight as they wrestle within the water.   This is pure slapstick, with the sequence making relatively little dramatic sense within the course of the narrative.  By the end of the scene, most of the boys are shirtless, with some also with their trousers down.  Those that have not been stripped of their shirts are so wet that their (mostly white) shirts have become see-through.   The removal of clothing in this way is not unusual in the surviving entries in the series.  For example in Running Wild (1928), much is made of the campus tradition of jumping on students and removing them of their clothing (although they leave their underwear intact.  This was 1928 after all).

The one entry we have available to us from the end of the series is 1929’s part-talkie, Flying High.  Sadly it is a huge disappointment over what had gone before.  The dialogue is clumsily delivered, and the plot itself is contrived and the whole thing seems remarkably tired.  Whether this was the norm for these final episodes is difficult to know with no other title from 1929 available to us, although we can always hope for more to emerge in years to come.

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What perhaps make these films more fascinating is the lack of similar scenes involving female characters.  The girls are rarely, if ever, seen in a state of undress and, while Ed is in love with June throughout the series, their love story always takes second place to the sporting events themselves and the rivallry between Ed and Don.   The male body is certainly the spectacle here, and there to be admired, but the continued communal semi-nudity, forced removal of other people’s clothing, and physical interaction certainly adds a homoerotic feel to the whole proceedings, whether intended or not.

If you haven’t come across this series of films, they are worth hunting around for, although sadly Flying High (the worst of the ones I have seen) is the one more easily accessible on DVD, and is an extra on the “Discovering Cinema” set.  The Relay is currently available on YouTube.

(Except where noted, all screencaps are from Flashing Oars).


Mrs T and Me: Reminiscing

 

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You won’t know the lady pictured above.   Her name is Elsie Turner, rechristened “Mrs T” by yours truly when I was 7, and it was as Mrs T that I have referred to her ever since.

I think we all have someone in our lives, other than our parents, who somehow changes or influences the direction which our lives take.  It may be a teacher, a grandparent, maybe even a hero we aspire to be.  In my case it was Mrs T.  I met her when I was 7, having accompanied my Dad to her house one day in order to “help” him (I use the term loosely) with some gardening work he was doing for following her move into the area.  Mrs T was in her early seventies, and we hit it off instantly – helped by her often surreal sense of humour and our mutual love of books.  At the end of the job, I promised I would go and see her again.  This I did a week or so later, and continued to do so at least once a week (normally more often) until she passed away fifteen years later.  She had no children or grandchildren.  She had been married for just a few days when her husband returned to the war, and she never saw him again.  Likewise, one of my own Nans had passed away a few months earlier.  We fell into position perfectly.

We would talk, drink lots of tea, eat lots of cake, read books together, and play card games or scrabble.  As years went on and going out became more difficult for her, I would make sure she had a supply of library books, do some shopping,  and some household chores.   She also gave me a batch of 78rpm records at one point.  She had no music system at all, just a radio.  So, I took them home and rather crudely transferred them to tape, and took them round on occasion so that she could hear them.  She would sing along to them (rather badly, even she would admit), and teach me other songs from the period.

One thing that wasn’t always quite as pleasurable was Mrs T’s love for cricket, Irene Dunne and Deanna Durbin.  When I first got to know her, Channel 4 had just started broadcasting in the UK, and their habit of showing old films every weekday afternoon meant that Mrs T could see again films she had first seen in the 1930s.  I’d watch old films with Mum too, but they were mostly 40s and 50s films, we rarely watched anything as old as I did with Mrs T.  I have to confess that Deanna and Irene never really appealed to me, but these were films that meant a lot to her and with good reason.

These were films that she had seen for the first time when she was in London during the 1930s, working as a Nanny (and a wonderful one she must have been).  I heard lots of stories over the years about this period, and she always seemed very proud of her time in London.  I know now that she had good reason to be.  Girls born in a Norfolk village in 1909 rarely left the village itself, let alone move across the country to the capital.  Her move must have raised some eyebrows at the time.

Along with Deanna Durbin and Irene Dunne (I’m sure there were others), I also got introduced to silent films for the first time when Channel 4 started showing them on Sunday afternoons.  I remember  The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg was one of them, starring Ramon Novarro.  At the time I guess I was bored rigid watching a silent movie (I saw it again recently and , up until that point, remembered nothing of it), although as a teenager I do remember being rather taken by Ramon Novarro (although I certainly didn’t let that on at the time!).  She was rather taken by him too, and I seem to remember her saying that she had met him once in London.  If so, that would have been in 1935 when he was appearing for a brief time in a rather disastrous stage play.

The film that changed everything was Show Boat.  I had seen the 1950s glossy MGM version with Mum by this time (I was about twelve I guess), and admit that I wasn’t altogether happy that my afternoon with Mrs T would be spent watching an older version of the story rather than playing cards.  But this twelve year old became entranced within minutes of the film starting, and my love of cinema was cemented forever.  It became “our film”, and we would talk about it and sing the songs.  Mrs T would tell me about the first time she saw it in London.  I heard those stories many times over – it’s funny how we never realize that we’d give anything years later to hear them all over again.  We hoped and waited that our beloved Channel 4 would show it again.  They did about a year later, at about 11pm on a school night.  Dad was out of work, and we were no longer hiring a video player.  There was a thirteen year old boy bawling like a baby in his bedroom that night as he wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch it.

We did get to see it again about eight years later, when it was shown one afternoon.   For one more time we could sit and watch the film together.  By this time, Mrs T was in her mid eighties.  The chat was getting less bright and bubbly and funny, she was getting through less library books, I’d even begun to start winning games of scrabble.  My friend was slowly running out of steam.

By this point I was visiting three or four times a week.  I was going through a period after sixth form where I was moving from one temp job to another.  In 1996, I applied for an office job at the local university, and got an interview.  I hurriedly went to tell Mrs T the good news.  She tried her best to look pleased, but had somehow got it into her head that a full-time job would change everything, and that I would have better things to do than see her in my (considerably less) spare time.   This wasn’t true, of course.  The very next day I had a phone call from her niece, telling me that Mrs T had had a stroke and was in hospital.  She died two weeks later, just a few days after I had started work at the university which has been the centre of my life in one way or another for the last seventeen years.

I guess the passing of Mrs T and the start of that job was the real end of my childhood.  It was a sixth month contract (no renewals I was told), but I was still working there nine years later when I handed in my notice so that I could finally do a degree.  It was film that I chose as my subject, and the direction that my degree (and my MA and PhD) took seems to have been very much influenced by my childhood friend.  Instead of analyzing films, I write about how they received and understood at the time they were released, and what they meant to audiences at that time.  This wasn’t a conscious decision, of course, but I can’t help but think it (and the period I invariably research) was influenced by the person with whom I spent so much of my childhood and teenaged years, and the stories she shared of how, why and when she saw the films that we watched together and why they meant so much to her.

Ten Favourite Films of the 1920s

Firstly, thank you for the kind comments that I’ve received on the 1910s selection.  Here we go with the 1920s batch.  It’s certainly more difficult to keep this one down to ten films, so I am going to say at the beginning that Wings, The Kid, Flesh and the Devil and Sunrise are on my list of favourite films from the 1920s – I’m sure they’re on everybody’s.  However, the intention is to include at least some of the lesser-known gems of the decades in question, and so I have omitted them from the following.

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THE OLD SWIMMIN’ HOLE (1921)

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Charles Ray was thirty when he played the teenaged boy in this quiet and charming rural drama from 1921.  Thankfully, this doesn’t detract from the film (although signs of his age might well be obscured by the decidedly dodgy print I have seen).  It’s very much in the mould of In Wrong, which I talked about in the 1910s post, but here we have the advantage of Laura La Plante in an early role.  There is no real plot to speak of, just a series of episodes in a boy’s life as he spends his summer relaxing at the swimming hole of the title.   Oddly, there are no intertitles either – so much for The Last Laugh being the first feature film to have that distinction!

CONDUCTOR 1492 (1923)

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Johnny Hines is one of the forgotten faces of silent comedy.  Some of this films seem somewhat derivative of other comedians, but he is always likeable and a pleasant way to spend an hour or so.  This film is notable because of the inventive sequence in which he is trying to jump the queue to the boarding house bathroom.   It’s the funniest sequence in any of the Hines films currently available, and is more than enough to reason to seek out this little gem.

BEN HUR (1925)

I confess that I hate the 1950s Ben Hur with a passion, but absolutely adore the Novarro version.  We read now that this was a really troubled production etc, but none of that is reflected on the screen.  Novarro makes for an extremely likeable hero (even if physically he may look wrong), and it’s all beautifully filmed and edited to make the narrative move along at a fair lick as well.   This is simply great entertainment.

THE PLASTIC AGE (1925)

It is probably quite a shock to anyone watching the film today just how little screen time Clara Bow gets in this lighthearted campus comedy.  Her regular co-star, Donald Keith, is definitely the intended star of this one, although Bow steals every scene she is in.  Her naturalistic style is beautiful to watch, and once she starts shedding tears, so do we.  The nominal plot is that Keith turns up at college, falls in love with Bow, but she feels she is a bad influence on him as she is very much a girl who likes to party.   There is strong support from Gilbert Roland and Henry B Walthall, and snappy direction by Wesley Ruggles.  Interestingly, Ruggles would take a number of elements from this film and use them in his series of short campus comedy films, The Collegians, over the next few years.   If you can track some of these down, they are also well worth a look.

THE BLUE EAGLE (1926)

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This is said to have been George O’Brien’s favourite film out of all those that he made, and what exists of it today shows it to be a great piece of entertainment.  O’Brien is in great form (and looks stunning – occasionally he even wears a shirt).   Someone has summed up the plot on IMDB as “two brawlin’ rivals take on a big drug dealer who has a James Bond-like lair complete with submarine”, and it’s pretty accurate.  John Ford directs the film with flair, and there is even the bonus of a pre-Sunrise pairing of O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.

BROWN OF HARVARD (1926)

I thought long and hard about including this film, not least as I have already included a campus comedy in my list of ten.  However, Brown of Harvard is a little different to most in that the hero of the film is so damned dislikable for the most part.  Williams Haines, in a career-defining role, plays the big-headed, often self-centred, Tom Brown of the title, and does so very well.  What sets the film apart most of all, however, is the supporting cast, which is superb.  It’s also a film that gave one of my own favourite actors, Jack Pickford, one of his last film roles, and it’s one of his best.  In fact, it’s the touching friendship he strikes up with Haines’s character that makes the film work and makes Haines remotely bearable.  Pickford’s final scenes in the film are devastating.

TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927)

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It is almost criminal that this early Lewis Milestone film isn’t out there on DVD for all to enjoy.  It starts off as a First World War film before turning into a comedy adventure movie.  Louis Wolheim and William Boyd are absolutely superb as bickering buddies who love each other really, and who will seemingly do anything required of them to save Arabian princess Mary Astor.  This is a huge bundle of fun, and deserves to be much better known (and much more available) than it currently is.

THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The man who taught me silent film when I was doing my undergraduate degree (who will remain nameless as he probably frequents these groups) must have been a genius.  How to get a group of film students in their first semester tuned into the wonders of silent film?  Show them The Unknown.  How exactly can anyone watch it and not be totally transfixed for the next hour as the plot veers from mad to madder?  At the end you think it’s going to turn into a 1920s equivalent of torture porn (which thankfully it doesn’t…quite).  Lon Chaney is, of course, superb in what is now one of his most celebrated performances.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and do so.  Now.

NOAH’S ARK (1929)

A rather infamous film because of the stories of the death of three extras during the filming of the flood scenes, but also a rousing success for Michael Curtiz.  It’s an odd film in that it starts off as a war drama, then stops to tell us the story of Noah’s Ark, and then returns to finish off the war story.  It’s the war section where it works best, with great chemistry between George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (we won’t ask how he got the “big boy” nickname).   There is a great reliance on coincidence in the narrative but, providing you’re happy to just sit back and go with the flow, this is stirring stuff.

THE FOUR FEATHERS (1929)

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I admit that I didn’t really expect to enjoy this silent version of the oft-filmed tale but was proved wrong.   This was Paramount’s last silent film, and what a way to end the era.  Richard Arlen, who often seemed to be rather wooden in sound films, is in fine form here, and he is ably supported by William Powell, Clive Brook and Fay Wray.  There is also some rather fine wildlife footage here too, including a rather lengthy stampede of hippopotamus (what’s the plural of hippopotamus?!)

Ten Favourite Films of the 1910s

When people write film lists, it’s generally the “best” films that are included, with their enjoyability not always taken into account.  So, here is my own film list (or at least part one of it), in which I highlight some personal favourites.  Don’t expect to see many critics choices here; after all, I’d rather watch Final Destination than wade through Barry Lyndon or Metropolis!  The films for each decade are in chronological order.  And these aren’t my “favourite ten films”, but simply “ten of my favourite films” for each decade.  And so, come with me back to the 1910s!

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The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

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This short film from 1912 is not for those who cry easily at films.  Directed by Harold M Shaw, it stars young Martin Fuller as a boy who sneaks away on an outing for poor children to the country.  Once there he hears a fairy story about a land where children live happily and feel no pain.  At the end of the day, the boy makes a decision which is bound to have you reaching for the tissues.  Beautifully filmed and movingly acted, this was released on DVD as part of the Treasure of American Film Archives set.

Old Scrooge (1913)

Seymour Hicks appears on film for the first time as Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he would return to in a 1930s remake.   Hicks is perfectly cast here, in the first film treatment of the story to be more than just a series of tableaux based on the novel.   The effects are surprisingly good, and this early adaptation is well worth seeking out.

A Florida Enchantment (1914)

One has to wonder what audiences made of this bizarre gender-bending comedy when it appeared in 1914.   After taking some seeds, a woman realizes that her soul changes gender while she retains the same looks.  She then proceeds to have a great deal of fun at the expense of others that results in what appear on the surface to be same-sex relationships.  Daring for the time, but with a cop-out ending, this has to be seen just in order to realize how barmy some early feature films actually were.

Intolerance (1916)

Ok, I confess.  I like Intolerance.  I can agree with most of the anti-Griffith sentiment out there, but here his love for epic proportions work in his favour and, while the narrative format doesn’t always work, it’s a hugely entertaining failed experiment.   There is much more to enjoy here than the sluggish and offensive Birth of a Nation, and much for the eye to take in.  Most of all, though, is the touching “modern” storyline which remains as moving now as when the movie was first shown nearly a hundred years ago.

Poor Little Peppina (1916)

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Anyone who knows my ramblings well will know that my love for Mary Pickford is not great.  That said, this rare little film is both ridiculous from a narrative point of view, and charming from the point of view of characterization, and well worth seeing.  Pickford plays a girl kidnapped by the mafia, presumed dead, but then lands up in Italy knowing nothing of her past.  When she later stows away to New York she (very) coincidentally finds herself involved with the members of the mafia that kidnapped her in the first place.  Jack Pickford has a lovely little cameo as her brother.

Vingarne (1916)

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This is Mauritz Stiller’s take on the novel Mikael by Herman Bang, in which an a princess comes between an aging artist and his protégé.  Generally thought to be the first gay-themed feature film, but there is a problem in that the nature of the relationship isn’t made totally explicit.  Nonetheless, it contains early performances from Lars Hanson and Nils Asther, and Mauritz Stiller pulls out all the stops with a complex structure in which a framing device is used in which the actors play themselves making the film.  Confused?!

Himmelskibet (1918)

One of the first feature-length science-fiction films, this Danish movie directed by Holger-Madsen doubles up as a plea for peace in war-torn Europe.  Thought lost for many years, this is a wonderful find.  Of course it’s all rather naïve, but it’s also surprisingly entertaining, and the thought of there being a race of peace-loving vegetarians on Mars is much more pleasant than most modern tales of alien life!

Anders als die Andern (1919)

As a gay man, I could hardly leave out this remarkable film pleading for the legalization of homosexual acts in Germany.  Directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Veidt, the film is still remarkably touching even when viewed today in its fragmented form.  Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld helped write the script and appears in the film playing himself.   Surprisingly ahead of its time – Victim would be seen as progressive when it tackled a similar theme and narrative over forty years later.

In Wrong (1919)

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There was a cycle of rural coming-of-age dramas during the late 1910s and early 1920s and, of those that are still in existence, this is one of the most charming.  Jack Pickford plays the somewhat lazy but likeable teenager who can’t seem to do anything right, until finally he does and wins over the girl.  That’s pretty much it, folks, but this is a delightful character study, and Pickford demonstrates just why he was a box office draw during the 1910s.  The vast majority of his work from this period is lost, but this shows just what he was capable of – and there are some lovely moments between him and a mongrel dog as well which are really rather touching.

The Lost Batallion (1919)

A rarity in that this is an entertaining war film from the 1910s, based on the true story of a battalion fighting in World War I that is saved from certain death by a carrier pigeon that, rather oddly, was then awarded a medal!  The soldiers mostly play themselves, and make a good job of it, with the first half of the film being particularly entertaining as they sign up, train and get to know each other.  The second half isn’t so successful, but this is still good stuff.

Happy 500th Birthday, Pointless!

Pointless

 

I’m not sure of the exact reason why The Weakest Link was eventually cancelled.  It could have been because of falling audience figures, or it could have been because Anne Robinson’s face no longer moved.   Either way, the replacement of it with Pointless was a masterful move, not least because the two programmes are so different from each other.  The Weakest Link was cold, bitter and heartless; a sterile, clinical quiz show if ever there was one.  Pointless, on other hand, is quite the opposite, and a welcome throwback to the classic age of the quiz show from the 1970s and 1980s when audiences were allowed to get to know the contestants, hosts could be funny without being insulting, and questions didn’t solely centre on who was who in the world of trashy TV.  Pointless reaches its 500th show this week, and here’s hoping it continues for many years to come.

I did catch Pointless near the beginning of its life, and thought it was the most ridiculous thing I ever saw.  I’m not sure if the format changed over the years (I don’t remember those early shows well enough), but it certainly seemed much slicker, funnier and worthwhile when I started catching bits of it by accident before the 6 o’clock news.  The format is a clever one, with each contestant having two chances at reaching the final round, and thus making the show more addictive with their being continuity from show to show (Deal or No Deal uses a similar trait of getting to know contestants over a number of shows).  Pointless can be enjoyed as single episodes, but viewed regularly it is more rewarding, with returning contestants, running jokes, and contestants and questions referred back to from time to time.

Of course, what makes Pointless  so watchable is the chemistry between its two hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman who, no doubt, would storm their way to the final round if they were a team on the show.  They are a welcoming pair, happy to both provide jokes and be the butt of them, but without any malice between them.  Pointless, therefore, becomes perfect eat-your-tea-in front-of-the-telly type viewing and is, no doubt, why it works so well.  There are moments when the hosts must have a sinking feeling when a barrage of ridiculous answers come their way, but they smile their way through it – although there are occasions when Armstrong’s mouth is saying “and these are today’s players”, but his eyes are saying “Oh God, where did they get this lot from”.  Luckily for the show, Armstrong isn’t faultless (despite seemingly able to answer 95% of the questions), having referred to the show as “Countdown” in the past, and offering “befriend” as word ending in “ind” – something still referred to many shows later. Osman, meanwhile, sits behind his fake laptop, no doubt relishing the moment that he gets to tell an English teacher that The Pickwick Papers wasn’t written by Stephen King, but that he’ll give them the answer at the end of the round.

There have also been attempts to keep the show fresh for regular viewers – some are improvements, and some are not.  I admit to not liking the current incarnation of the “head to head” round, much preferring it when people could win through to the final by naming things Rick Astley was “never gonna do”.    But still, Pointless has become one of the most genial of all quiz shows, and perhaps the only one currently on TV where the roots can be traced back to classics of the genre as hosted (when I was a kid) by Bob Monkhouse, Paul Daniels, Jimmy Tarbuck and others.  It’s a quiz show that refuses to take itself seriously, something which many other shows could learn by.

So, happy birthday Pointless and long may you reign.