Monday, March 06, 2006

A Quality Quickie

Henrby Geoff Collins

As you may know, I live in sleepy old England, and very occasionally over here the television networks surprise us with an unexpected treat in the middle of the night. (I refer, of course, to tasty vintage movies. What did you think I was on about, you wicked lot?) Last night BBC2 came up with a special treat: The Ghost Camera, made in 1933 at Twickenham Studios and on location in what looks like Corfe Castle in Dorset, a spectacular ruin. I refer to Corfe Castle, of corfe, not the film - or do I?

This is one of the great Bad Films, often cited as a typical example of the "quota quickie" whereby British cinemas in the 1930s had to show a certain percentage of British Films - resulting in the cheap little studios churning out hundreds of cheap little "fillers" of mostly mediocre quality. The Ghost Camera, however, does have a few surprises. I'm always drawn to Lupino-related movies, and here we have Ida, (daughter of Stanley, distant niece of Lupino Lane) aged about nineteen, in an early role as the leading lady. The hero is played by the revue star Henry Kendall, who wears spectacles throughout and behaves like the stuffy English cousin of Harold Lloyd.

What's initially remarkable about this little opus is that it looks like a rehearsal for The Thirty-Nine Steps, with geeky chemist Kendall and lovely blonde Ida on the trail of a mysterious murderer, who turns out to be... no, I won't spoil it for you. Kendall even sends up his part by occasionally referring to himself as a character in a melodrama. Clearly he was knocking out these cheapies in the mornings for a bit of extra cash, while appearing on the West End stage in the evening. And who can blame him? But he makes no attempt to be the conventional "leading man" and plays it all like "Teddy Deakin" in The Ghost Train, who's an insufferable twerp throughout but who turns out to be the detective at the end. Kendall had played this part on stage in 1929 so it looks as if we're being treated to a movie version of it. Nice one, Henry.

Second (and, I promise, final) remarkable point: right at the end of the movie when all the complications have been sorted out, and Ida's off with Kendall in his little Morris Cowley, Ida's brother - played by a very young John Mills - offers to take a photo of the Happy Couple. Kendall can't wait for Mills to stop fiddling about with his equipment [make up your own joke here] and gives Ida a passionate kiss. "Oh!" says Mills offscreen, "That's spoiled the picture!"

Sounds familiar? Have a look at the ending of the original silent version of The Gold Rush, and there it is, exactly the same gag. Chaplin cut it out of the 1942 reissue but the 1925 "public domain" version is still around, and so's his gag; and it's a good one. Did Charlie know that his cute little ending was poached by cheapo Twickenham Studios? Most likely not; and it's probably just as well, as he would have had the lawyers jumping about all over the place. Never mind; it gives The Ghost Camera a good finish - and it's probably obvious to all of you that I enjoyed every minute of it.

....and by the way, the police inspector did it.

Oh - I've spoiled the picture.

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