Friday, 3 June 2011

Those Wonderful Movie Cranks (1978)

No, there is not a film named in honour of Pretty Pink Patty and her like!  There is however this somewhat obscure Czech movie from actor-director Jiri Menzel.  Good old friend Richard (the one with the small cinema in a shed at the bottom of his garden) does occasionally turn up gems that were previously unknown to me -- and this is a rather sweet case in point.

Menzel who is probably best known for his "Closely Observed Trains" (1966), is one of the few well-known Czech directors who has not ventured further afield, i.e. 'Gone Hollywood'.  While he has not directed any films since 2006's well-received "I Served the King of England", he still makes frequent appearances as an actor.  In this lovingly conceived movie he creates a billet-doux to early cinema and its pioneers.  The movie's alternate title is "Magicians of the Silverscreen". Set in 1907,  the film's hero is a man who scratches out a living with his travelling picture-show, projecting his one-reel films on bed-sheet screens and thrilling his provincial audiences with 'moving photographs'.  His dream is to open a full-time cinema in bustling Prague -- an ambition which everyone believes is doomed to fail, even if he could raise the necessary money and obtain the necessary permits.  Somewhat of a lecher at the best of times, he pins his hopes on wooing and wedding a randy, rich widow.

Not only has Menzel created original one-reelers which capture the frantic pace and slapstick humour of the early, primitive flickers, but he has also shot the surrounding film in tones of sepia, thereby reconstructing a ravishing backdrop for the period.  The director himself plays a young photographer with no economic ambitions, but a man who wants to capture his Prague of the present for posterity.  I was not familiar with any of the cast, although the lead, Rudolph Hrusinsky, did indeed look familiar to me; apparently he has appeared in some 144 roles, so that's not too surprising.  However most of the cast were charming, including the hero's long-suffering young daughter who provides the music for his showings, another fetching young lady whom he promised to look after following her father's death (who is foisted upon Menzel's character), and even the fusty widow-lady.  There was also an actress protraying a grande dame of Czech theatre whose classic performances our hero wants to immortalise on film, a la Sarah Bernhardt, to make the medium appear more respectable -- even if no one can hear the histrionic speeches she is mouthing. 

Unless one is willing to accept the film's nostalgic charm or is interested in cinema's origins, it would be difficult to recommend this movie to the average cinemagoer. There is not a great deal of action to involve the viewer -- and of course it is not, as far as I know a readily accessible title anyhow.  However should the opportunity arise to view Menzel's labour of love, this movie is well worth knowing.
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