Sound of the Suburbs
100 years ago the Phoenix rose from the ashes. It wasn’t called the Phoenix then – it was The Picturedrome. Then later The Coliseum and then, in my mum’s time, when she was growing up down the road in Church End, the Rex. On 9th May 1912, The Picturedrome opened for business, two years after it was actually built, in the North London suburb of East Finchley. The first company, taking a big risk with this new technology of the cinematograph, went bankrupt, although had, through jumping early, secured the Phoenix’s place as the oldest purpose-built cinema in the country. The opening film was about the sinking of the Titanic.
On Sunday afternoon 13th May 2012 I walked down our high street with wife, son, neighbour and a couple of kids from our street to a special centenary screening of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, this being ironically the first sunny day after weeks of ceaseless precipitation. The theme of the short three-film programme was the transition to sound as the Phoenix was the first cinema in the area to show a sound film. On 22nd July 1929 the Phoenix screened ‘The Jazz Singer’ (made in 1927, premiered in London’s West End in September 1928) the first movie to feature synchronised song performances and a sequence with synch dialogue including the famous, self-referential line: You ain’t heard nothing yet!
The centenary programme therefore opened with a trailer for ‘The Jazz Singer’. It was a very different kind of trailer from what we’re now used to – a presenter in full evening dress addresses us to camera, a barely supressed smile on his face, amazed himself that this new fangled invention of sound cinema actually works.
Look what I’m doing, can you bloody believe it?! He introduces scenes from the movie’s New York premiere, not dissimilar from the opening scene of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ when on-screen partners Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) attend the opening of their new movie at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre.
That was one of my most memorable sound cinema experiences – being taken to Graumann’s by my best-friend’s family to see a new movie called ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with the best of Dolby Surroundsound blowing my teenage ears and mind. That was the same trip I bought myself a new fangled machine called a WM1 – the first model of Sony Walkman, basically a brick, I still have it as a reminder of how technology evolves. In a while I’ll be off for a jog with my electric blue iPod Shuffle, about the size of a badge. Watching the scene of Al Jolson blacking up minstrel style, my 12 year old leaned over and whispered “That’s racist …isn’t it?” “Yes, it is really. Things change.”
The second film on the programme was the first ever sound animated film, ‘Steamboat Willie’ starring Mickey Mouse. The audio was mainly spot effects, animal sounds and the like. Mainly animals in pain, tortured and terrorised by a soon to be famous rodent on a Southern steamboat. “They can’t do that, can they?” whispered the 21st Century boy. “Not really, you’re right, animal cruelty. Things change.”
Disney’s cartoons had not really stood out from the competition until Walt took a chance on sound. Like Premier Electric Theatres (who had the Phoenix built in 1910) he had been facing bankruptcy – in the wake of seeing ‘The Jazz Singer’ he staked all on the new invention and an empire was born. It opened in New York’s Colony Theater on 18th November 1928, now Mickey’s official birthday.
The main feature for the Phoenix centenary celebration was the 1952 classic MGM musical co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, about the tricky transition to sound.
I was particularly looking forward to the film after having thoroughly enjoyed, a couple of weeks earlier, the excellent (highly recommended) West End stage version that opened earlier this year at the Palace Theatre, starring Adam Cooper, who played adult Billy in the final scene of ‘Billy Eliott’, as he launches himself into the world of ballet dance.
The parenthetical Broadway Melody ballet sequence in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, showcasing Kelly in partnership with Cyd Charisse (who passed away relatively recently in 2008) is still emblematic of the boldness and innovation of this golden era of musicals. Kelly and Donen, alongside Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed, constituted the Freed Unit at MGM who also collaborated on ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ (1944), ‘The Pirate’ (1948), ‘On the Town’ (1949), the magical ‘An American in Paris’ (1951), ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954) and ‘Gigi’ (1958). Unlike the later lazier approach of adapting Broadway musicals, this was an original story suggested by the song Singin’ in the Rain, written by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, a song-writing team established in the 20s and 30s, around when this film is set. From that span off the script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also wrote ‘On the Town’. Surprisingly, given the coherence of the story, most of the other songs (bar two) were originally composed by Freed & Brown for different Hollywood movies before Freed set himself up as a producer. Astonishingly the film made only moderate returns at the time of release, won big fat zero Oscars and received little critical attention. Well, what did they know, what’s not to like? Exquisite dancing by Gene Kelly, not just in the eponymous central scene (to the 1950s what Walking on the Moon was to the late 70s), but in all his performances from the romantic empty studio duet with Debbie Reynolds to the jokey stuff with Danny Kaye lookalike/actalike Donald O’Connor; gorgeous Technicolor costumes and sets; beautiful singing, not least by Reynolds; ensemble acting with real chemistry in its core trio; and a witty, tight script with some really original, organic comedy like the out-of-sync film gag and the scene where the actions of the silent stars are totally at odds with what they are saying unrecorded. The Enfant Terrible and his little chums found further (unintended) comedy in the back-projected driving scenes (“Things change.”)
I hurried off at the end of the afternoon’s good clean family fun to get changed and off to the TV BAFTAs part 1: the TV Craft Awards. I had that post-Musical feeling of expecting vaguely for people to break out in song at any moment around me. By the end of the evening the Live from the Clinic team and I were on the point of song with a win in the Digital Creativity category. The British Film Academy was set up way later than its American cousin. The first Oscars were awarded in 1929, two years after ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is set. David Lean and Powell & Pressberger (whose ‘The Red Shoes’ I suspect is part of the Technicolor race-memory of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’) helped establish our Academy in 1947.
It’s been interesting to see the early history of cinema high in the collective consciousness this last year with ‘The Artist’ (not entirely deservedly, in spite of its bold timing and originality) sweeping the awards and ‘Hugo’, so lovingly made (in the UK) by one of the world’s great cinephiles (and a huge fan and champion of ‘The Red Shoes’ team). Then on stage at the National Theatre in London (in the auditorium named after that great bridge of theatre-cinema, Laurence Olivier) I took the older Enfant Terrible earlier in the year to his first proper play, which against the odds given his teenage phillistinism, he really enjoyed, ‘Travelling Light’ by Nicholas Wright. It looks at the emergence of cinema in Poland and the journey from the stetl to Hollywoodland of the founding fathers of the movie business. It featured Anthony Sher, who has never happily crossed from stage to screen – I saw him recently hamming it up in ‘Three and Out’, which was shot in large part opposite The Phoenix in East Finchley’s sister Art Deco tube station (The Phoenix featuring fine gilded Art Deco reliefs along the walls of its barrel-vaulted auditorium). The Art Deco archer adorning East Finchley station was sculpted by the man who created the stairway to heaven in Powell & Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life of Death’ (Eric Aumonier). Back from the sublime to the ridiculous, ‘Three and Out’ stars East Finchley local, Mackenzie Crook opposite Colm Meaney and Gemma Arterton – when I occasionally see Crook getting on or off the tube with me what springs to mind is never ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, but always that astonishing play ‘Jerusalem’, carried by Mark Rylance’s barn-storming performance, an actor who in another way seems indifferent to the silver screen. There’s a great scene in Singin’ in the Rain where Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) mocks the mugging and crude acting of the silent stars by comparison with the luminaries of the East Coast stage. “What do you have to be so conceited about? You’re nothing but a shadow on film… just a shadow. You’re not flesh and blood.”
The interior of the Phoenix, including its Jazz Singer era decor like the bas-reliefs, was restored to mark the centenary of the building in 2010. As part of the fundraising I put on a screening of Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Nowhere Boy’ with the kind help of colleagues in Film 4. I also bought the Enfants Terribles an illuminated plaque on the timeline in the upper foyer representing the 100 years of Cinema in its lifetime to date. For a donation you could buy a year and movie. I went for 9 years later – ‘Modern Times’ and 1936, by the greatest exponent of cinema of all time, Charlie Chaplin (whose name the younger ET bears) – one who never really needed to make the leap from silent to sound, who struggled with the transition, sounded suitably strange in his first spoken words on film (the wonderful humanist speech at the end of ‘The Great Dictator’) and who embodies the truth that even if things change you don’t always have to change with them to be able to capture the things that don’t change in 100 years, 1,000 years, ever.