Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Tonic

Der eingebildete Kranke [the title on the print] (Angle Pictures Limited, GB 1928) D: Ivor Montagu; prod: Simon Rowson; scen./des: Frank Wells; story: H.G. Wells; DP: F.A. [Freddie] Young; first cam. asst: Roy Kellino; prod. mgr: Lionel Rich; continuity: Eileen Hellstern [Mrs. “Hell” Montagu]; make-up: Walter Wichelow; assts: Sergei Nolbandov, Michael Hankinson, H. Haslander; cast: Elsa Lanchester (Elsa), Renée de Vaux (Aunt Louisa), Charles Laughton (Father), Marie Wright (Mother), ?Lionel Rich (elder son), Roy Kellino (younger son), Walter Wichelow (brother-in-law); 35 mm (digital transfer from 16 mm), 508 m, 22 min (20 fps); from: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. Deutsche Fassung, deutsche Zwischentitel. Viewed at Cinema Verdi, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in English and Italian and Maud Nelissen on the grand piano, 2 Oct 2010

From the GCM Catalogue: "Angle Pictures was set up with the (not unreasonable) intention of making the rising young comedienne Elsa Lanchester (1902-1986) the female Chaplin. The instigators were two budding young cineastes, Ivor Montagu (1904-1984), the principal creator of The Film Society, and Frank Wells (1902-1982), one of its most enthusiastic members. They recruited to their board more established film executives, Simon Rowson, whose Ideal Films somewhat altruistically distributed the films, and Michael Balcon, already a director of Piccadilly and Gainsborough Pictures. H.G. Wells, Frank’s father, was a friend of Elsa Lanchester, and provided the stories for the films: it was he who initially insisted that Lanchester must be the star of all the company’s comedies. The money for the first three – Bluebottles, Daydreams, and The Tonic – was raised by an unnamed “dapper American” associate of Rowson: Montagu recalled, in his memoir With Eisenstein in Hollywood, that they cost between five and six thousand pounds. Three further planned pictures (The Oracle, Borrowed Splendour, and The Prize) were abandoned, and H.G. Wells told Lanchester, “I am not going to write any more stories for you. No future in talkies, no future at all”. Angle Pictures went into liquidation in March 1930.
In her memoirs Elsa Lanchester recalled, “The filming began on August 20th and took about three weeks to complete. … They were good days. I guess we were all in our twenties, including the cameraman who was Fred Young.” F.A. Young, whose career as cinematographer was to embrace 49th Parallel, Lawrence o Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago, was indeed 26 at this time. Lanchester also recalled that “Charles [Laughton] played a part in each one. He was paid six shillings for his work in the films – in those days there were no union problems or anything”. Members of the production staff were cast in bit parts.
The Tonic concerns a family who dream of their anticipated inheritance from rich Aunt Louisa, a chronic hypochondriac who has just fired the latest in a rapid succession of maids. This inspires the family to send Aunt Louisa their own dreadful maid, confident that Elsa will quickly shorten the old lady’s life, if only by mixing up her medicines. Diligently embarking on her new job, Elsa reads in the domestic medical dictionary the therapeutic virtues of a sudden shock. She dutifully and effectively sets out to provide one for Aunt Louisa.
The Tonic relies less than the other two Angle comedies on surrealist flights inspired by the Film Society’s enthusiasm for the European avant-garde. The film diligently pursues its extravagant story, with sharply caricatured characters, brisk slapstick, and absurdist moments like Elsa’s denuding of a parrot, to get feathers to burn under the fainted invalid’s nose. Lanchester’s comedy is enchanting and quite undated: she possesses the supreme comic gift of never for a moment appearing to think that anything she does is in the least funny.
Ivor Montagu recalled that the old lady who loaned the bald parrot double had innocently believed that it was to be used for scientific photographs: “I have never forgotten (it is an unhealed scar upon my conscience) her distress when she learned that, for the trifling sum that we had advertised, she had betrayed her heart’s companion to be laughed at.”
Also offended by the film was the writer Arnold Bennett. Charles Laughton was currently appearing in his play Mr. Prohack, in which his make-up was openly modelled on the 61-year-old Bennett’s own appearance. When he used the same caricatural make-up in The Tonic, however, without approval, Bennett was annoyed. Montagu wrote that he had “always felt he was right and been ashamed”. Distribution at home was delayed and the films appeared – and sank – in the new era of talking pictures. Nevertheless, in Germany, where they were distributed by Carl Koch’s company Deutscher Werkfilm GmbH, they were extremely popular, and there was even a plan, never fulfilled, to add synchronized soundtracks. Bluebottles and Daydreams were shown at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1999; but The Tonic has always been believed a lost film. However, a 16mm print of the German release version was recently discovered by the Deutsche Kinemathek in a collection of home movies; and it is this, digitally restored and transferred to 35mm, that the Giornate is now privileged to show. – DAVID ROBINSON." - A funny comedy about the hopelessly clumsy maid Elsa who is sent to rich and ailing aunt Louisa in the hope that that will precipitate her demise. Instead, Louisa is cured of her hypochondria and she makes Elsa her inheritor.

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