Saturday, October 06, 2012

Live cinema concert The Patsy (1928), Maud Nelissen conducting her score

Fascino biondo. US © 1928 M-G-M. A Marion Davies Production. D: King Vidor; SC: Agnes Christine Johnston, based on the play by Barry Connors (1925); DP: John Seitz; intertitles: Ralph Spence; AD: Cedric Gibbons; ED: Hugh Wynn; cost: Gilbert Clark; C: Marion Davies (Patricia Harrington), Orville Caldwell (Tony Anderson), Marie Dressler (Ma Harrington), Dell Henderson (Pa Harrington), Lawrence Gray (Billy), Jane Winton (Grace Harrington); 35 mm, 6917 ft, 84' (22 fps); print source: Photoplay Productions, London. E-subtitles in Italian. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, 6 Oct 2012.

Score by Maud Nelissen commissioned by Theodore Van Houten for Film in Concert; performed by FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra conducted by Maud Nelissen.
Performance of The Patsy by arrangement with Photoplay Productions.
Musical event realized with the support of Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Udine e Pordenone.

Kevin Brownlow: "Orson Welles belatedly apologized for his cruel depiction of “Susan Alexander” as a shrieking ignoramus in Citizen Kane, but can such damage ever be undone? Marion Davies has remained a laughingstock ever since – the irony being that she was in reality one of the finest comediennes Hollywood ever produced. She may have been generous, charitable, and warm-hearted – but who can forget that she was also mistress to William Randolph Hearst? And so her memory is clouded by myth."

"Take the long-surviving legend that Hearst, jealous of an affair Marion was having with Chaplin, shot at the great comedian during a party aboard his yacht, but hit Thomas Ince instead. Hearst was certainly annoyed by the affair; letters exist to prove it. He thought comedians were at the bottom of the social ladder. But Marion had her freedom, so that was that. If Hearst had wanted Chaplin killed, would he carry out the act in person? Would he mistake the best-loved man in the world for a producer he knew so well he was about to transfer his operation to his studio? Having attempted to murder Chaplin, would he invite him to San Simeon, and have him filmed merrily serenading Marion? Would he ask him to play in his production of Show People? And what about that home movie showing all three romping on the beach at Santa Monica? I rest my case."

"Hearst, a regular theatregoer, had a fondness for showgirls. He and Marion Davies had a relationship lasting 35 years, and Marion remained loyal in her fashion, bailing him out with tremendous sums of money when necessary."

"Hearst bought her a studio. Her fourth film was a comedy, but he loved to see her in historical epics. He thought that male attire brought out an erotic quality, so she was often filmed in uniform. Critics quickly realized that light comedy was her forte, but it took ages before Hearst was persuaded to allow her to play in full-length comedies rather than brief sequences."

"Hearst advertised Davies so relentlessly, boasting how much he had invested in her pictures, that he put people off. He cast her in deadly serious historical spectacles, which further damaged her reputation. Even when he realized how well audiences responded to her comedy – Vidor’s trio The Patsy, Show People, and Not So Dumb were the high points of her career – he was reluctant to change. Vidor had to get Hearst out of the studio before he could restore the gaiety to Show People."

"Marion was insecure about her acting ability. Hearst hired Roscoe Arbuckle, presumably at her behest, when he was out of work after his trial, to direct The Red Mill. With the rushes not up to standard, King Vidor was brought in. Marion loved his Big Parade – it was her favourite film of all time – and the combination was so successful that Vidor stayed on to direct the other comedies. He only stopped because he was worried about being typecast with comedy for the rest of his career."

"When Hearst was in his seventies, Marion realized he needed companionship more than she needed to act. She quit and devoted herself to him for the rest of his life. She involved herself in charitable work and put on salary many employees who fell ill or who were injured."

"Marion Davies performs imitations of Pola Negri, Mae Murray, and Lillian Gish, capturing the mannerisms of each to perfection. Yet here was the greatest hostess in California. How could she look these people in the eye when they next arrived at San Simeon?! She would follow this with a charming screwball comedy, The Cardboard Lover, and then embark on another King Vidor masterpiece called Show People, in which she would mimic Gloria Swanson. The cinematography was the work of John Seitz, Rex Ingram’s cameraman. He was an odd choice for a comedy; one of the most brilliant of all American cinematographers, he specialized in highly pictorial and heavily dramatic subjects like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Scaramouche (1923). Apparently Thalberg considered his work still a bit too dramatic, for he called him into his office on the previous Davies film and told him he was a wonderful cameraman, but this was about youth and jazz, and what about some backlighting on the blonde hair?"

"Davies finds an ideal comic opposite in Marie Dressler (1868-1934) in the role of her monstrous, domineering mother. The heavyweight, plain-faced, Canadian-born Dressler had been in vaudeville since the early 1890s and was a major Broadway star when Mack Sennett persuaded her to recreate her stage character in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) alongside Charles Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Since then however her career had waned – not helped by the hostility of the managements to her fearless union activities as the first President of the Chorus Equity Association. At the same time efforts to continue the Tillie character in further films had come to nothing. By the second half of the 1920s the great comedienne seriously considered suicide. Frances Marion, repaying former kindnesses, secured her a contract with M-G-M, though her first film there, The Callahans and the Murphys, was suppressed as a result of Irish-Catholic protests. After one or two more attempts, it was The Patsy which finally won back her prominence and public acclaim and prepared the way for a triumphant new career in talkies. At more than 60 years old, she became a top box-office star and won the 1930-31 Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill. She died in 1934, still every inch of her considerable size, a star, aged 65."

"The Patsy is a superb example of how a play, its restricted canvas slightly enlarged, can be transferred to the screen without one being aware of its origins. But sound had arrived. You would think that film-makers would struggle to reduce the titles, whereas in fact the opposite happened. There are a hail of titles, most of which, luckily, are very funny – they were the work of the top title-writer of the day, Ralph Spence, although he had Barry Connors’ successful play to provide extra ammunition. This is therefore a silent talkie, although one of the best Hollywood ever turned out. And one can imagine audiences in 1928 longing to hear their favourites actually speaking these witticisms."

"“After two or three reels of this one,” said Photoplay, “the director tossed away his script – maybe his megaphone too – and turned the picture over to Marion Davies. Which was a very smart thing to do, for when Marion cuts loose with clowning the result is that sort of comedy which reflects its results in crowded theaters.”"

"Incidentally, Charlie Chaplin, Hearst’s “victim”, voted The Patsy the best film of the year." – KEVIN BROWNLOW

THE MUSIC
Maud Nelissen: "In 2005 I was commissioned by the Dutch Film in Concert Foundation to write music for The Patsy, and it is an unbounded joy to be able to produce an extended orchestral version of this for Pordenone in 2012. The Patsy has made me into a zealous crusader for Marion Davies, and this great comedy, with its wonderful cast, deserves to be better known by the greater audience."

"To write music for such a powerful comedy might seem easy, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The utmost precision is demanded to musically underscore a film of so much vibrancy, while at the same time giving the necessary quietness to 200 very witty intertitles. In the course of my research, I discovered the original cue-sheet for The Patsy, a list of popular hit songs and classical themes that were performed “live” with the film on its original release in 1928. From this list I distilled the theme for Tony, one of the film’s main characters, while adapting it for our times."

"In my composition and arrangements I have tried to stay loyal to the musical idiom of late 1920s America. It is a broad idiom, and for The Patsy I have been largely inspired by the phenomenal dance orchestras and songs of the era."

"The love theme also originates from this period, and is based on the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, from Jerome Kern’s immortal musical Show Boat."

"For the very funny yacht club scene I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pay musical tribute to one of the era’s best dance orchestras, the band of Jimmie Lunceford. Our orchestra for The Patsy follows the regular line-up of Twenties dance orchestras, with extra strings added for the film’s lyrical moments."

"Finally, for the special refinements in my score I wish to express my immense gratitude to Mark Fitz-Gerald. His endless enthusiasm together with his great musicality and craftsmanship constantly inspire me to get the best out of myself for this wonderful film!" MAUD NELISSEN

AA: The opening gala event of the Pordenone festival was a brisk comedy with a perfectly fitting live score by Maud Nelissen. I have a problem with The Patsy as I feel the film-makers try too hard to be funny in the beginning, but there are good things already such as the goofy waiter. Lawrence Gray is fine as Billy the playboy with the assured approach. For me the film gets better towards the end. Patricia as played by Marion Davies is overbearing in the beginning, but she confesses that "I don't know how to get a personality". She is very funny when she starts to read the guide about "what to say and when" and starts to churn out bad aphorisms, believing that she can build a personality based on half-memorized clichés. I was reminded for a moment of a favourite comic performance of mine of this year, Ellen Page as Monica in To Rome with Love. The highlight of Marion Davies and the movie is of course her series of impersonations / parodies of Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Pola Negri... Maud Nelissen's score is charmingly humoristic, and the performance was very successful.

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