Search

Silent London

A place for people who love silent film

Bringing back Frances Marion’s lost novel Minnie Flynn

This is a guest post for Silent London by Ben Smith.

When Kevin Brownlow was in LA in the 1960s, interviewing cinema veterans for his unrivalled history of the Hollywood silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, there was one important figure who declined to be interviewed, Frances Marion. Brownlow admits he would have pursued her much more vigorously if he had only known then what he does now. At that time Marion was writing her memoir, Off With Their Heads!

Marion wrote some of the silent era’s biggest hits, among them screenplays for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Early on she established an extremely successful working relationship with Irving Thalberg, and became MGM’s premier screenwriter. She found love with a former Presbyterian Minister, Fred Thomson, and helped build his career as an actor who starred in 24 westerns. Thomson’s fame in 1927 was second only that of Tom Mix, but his stardom was cut short by a contract wrangle with the banker and film financier Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father and a man who both simultaneously swindled and reformed the studios).

Fred Thomson’s death in 1928 – variously recorded as the result of tetanus, gallstone surgery and tuberculous – left Frances Marion a bereft widow and the single parent of two children. Marion, was more than stoic in her refusal to be held back by tragedy and continued to stay at the front of her craft, being the first woman to get a solo screenwriting academy award for The Big House (1930) and another for The Champ (1931).

Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), which was written by Frances Marion

In 1925, the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, Marion published her debut novel Minnie Flynn, the story of an uneducated working class girl who gets a break in the New York movie world before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. Like Gatsby it was a story about new money, unfettered morals and collapsing class boundaries. Unlike Gatsby it wore its debt to melodrama on its sleeve. This unusual book, unique among the quietly burgeoning genre of the Hollywood novel for depicting the New York/New Jersey film industry, has been forgotten by history.

Continue reading “Bringing back Frances Marion’s lost novel Minnie Flynn”

Dreaming schoolgirls to film pioneers: Silent Women at the Kennington Bioscope

The next Kennington Bioscope event is one very close to my heart. On Wednesday 10 February, the Bioscopers will celebrate the achievements of early female film-makers. It’s all in aid of a new book on the subject called Silent Women, featuring contributions from writers including Bryony Dixon, Shelley Stamp and Kevin Brownlow

Inspirational and informative, Silent Women will challenge many people’s ideas about the beginnings of film history. This fascinating book roams widely across the era and the diverse achievements and voices of women in the film industry. These are the stories of pioneers, trailblazers and collaborators – hugely enjoyable to read and vitally important to publish.

Dorothy Arzner calls the shots
Dorothy Arzner calls the shots

One of the most eye-catching chapters in the book is an interview with the wonderful Dorothy Arzner, by Kevin Brownlow. Arzner’s career spanned the silent and sound eras and she hasd a notably close working relationship with Clraabow, so she certainly had some tales to tell. It’s a fascinating read, covering so much ground, but this quote really appealed to me – and I think you will enjoy it too:

I was always known as a dreaming schoolgirl who wanted to do things that were impossible to do. Later it was done, but I was reaching all the time for something unusual. I always had something unusual in my pictures if I could catch it.

Continue reading “Dreaming schoolgirls to film pioneers: Silent Women at the Kennington Bioscope”

Garbo and Gilbert in Love at the Royal Festival Hall

War and Peace is nearly at an end (the raunchy BBC TV adaptation, that is). But don’t despair – Tolstoy up your life with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Hollywood’s hottest ever on-screen couple ™ starred in the sumptuous Anna Karenina adaptation Love (Edmund Goulding, 1927), which is showing at the Royal Festival Hall this month.

Yes, the Royal Festival Hall – with the Philharmonia orchestra (featuring violinist Vadim Repin) playing a brand new score for the film written by Aphrodite Raickopoulou. You may remember that she wrote a very lush, romantic score for a similarly grand screening of Faust a few years back.

The even better news is that tickets for this event now begin at £5 – which is unbeatable value really. This screening is the premiere of the new score and will kick off the 2016 UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature here in London. The film and score will then embark on a world tour, taking in Russia, Japan and South Korea. But you’ll see it here first in London.

LOVE POSTER

Love, a Carmen Zgouras production, screens at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 25 February 2016 at 7.30pm.

 

Victory for Napoléon: cinema and DVD/Blu-ray release at last

Hold on to your three-cornered hats. This may well be the news you have been waiting for since … ooh 1980 or thereabouts. BFI and the Photoplay have announced jointly that Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece, is coming to a screen near you – whether that is a concert hall, cinema, TV or computer. We all have three-screen TVs right?

So you can see Napoléon (1927) with the Philharmonia orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this autumn – and many of us know what a treat that can be – but it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray, to stream on the BFIplayer and theatrically released in cinemas too. And make no mistake, this is the Kevin Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis’s epic score – the definitive five-and-a-half hour version of Napoléon that you really need in your life.

And while the live and cinema screenings will be magical experiences, I am getting a little thrill from the idea of being able to rewind sequences from the film and look at them again, and more closely. The snowball fight, for example! As that occurs at the the beginning of the movie, it could take me some time to get right to the end …

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI

I won’t say too much more now, as we will no doubt be talking about Napoléon all year, which I am hugely looking forward to. But I do want to share some details about the restoration, and the people who made it possible. For example, we have been told that the digital process of restoration has cleaned up some damage in the 35mm print and allowed for greater capacity to recapture the tinting and toning of the original film.

This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.

The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only 4 times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.

Continue reading “Victory for Napoléon: cinema and DVD/Blu-ray release at last”

Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

Charley v Charley

Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?

Chicago-1
Chicago (1927)

The many faces of Phyllis Haver

Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.

The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937)

Cary doffs his hat to Buster

If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.

Continue reading “Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward”

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: let’s all go down the Strand

Is there a more pleasant sounding word than “symposium”? I think not, even if like me you are just old enough to remember the mid-90s punk pop band of the same name.

So it is with a satisfied, cat-like smile, that I share the news of a symposium, coming to these parts in April. it’s the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, if you hadn’t guessed, and it will take place at King’s College London, on 28 and 29 April. Two days? Yes, one day (the 29th, a Friday) will be given over to papers, the afternoon and evening of the previous day will be devoted to screenings of British silent films. Like, ooh I don’t know, The Somme (1927), perhaps? Surely not. Well, you didn’t hear it from me …

Betty Balfour as Tiny Toes in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)
Betty Balfour demonstrates the dress code for the BSFF Symposium. Photograph: British Film Institute

But of course, the BSFF Symposium is a partner to the BSFF itself, so whatever is shown, and discussed, at the event will relate to “the opportunity to re-assess film-making in Britain between 1895 and 1930”, and offer a chance to “consider the achievements and the key debates brought to light by the festival, and to discuss the new directions that future research may take”.

If you are a little highbrow you’ll be especially pleased to know that the likelihood of biscuits is: good to high. If you are really clever, you’ll want to also know how to propose a paper for this delightful symposium. Hold on for the details of the call for papers, courtesy of Dr Lawrence Napper, the supremo of this symposium:

200-word proposals for 15 minute papers are invited on any aspect of film-making and film-going in Britain from 1895-1930. We encourage submissions from early career researchers and independent scholars, and this year especially welcome papers which respond to the themes of the most recent festival, and the current AHRB project on ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound’.

Proposals should be sent to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk  by 29 March 2016. See you there!

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane hoped to sneak out to the BSFF Symposium undetected …

Shaking up the silent canon: is The General the greatest silent film?

I like silent movies even more than I like chocolate. And I do really like chocolate. So when I saw Richard Osman, best known as the co-host of Pointless, holding the World Cup of Chocolate on Twitter a few years back, I pondered whether I could do the same for silent movies. It’s a simple idea – a knockout tournament in which voters pick their favourites, based loosely on the rules of the football World Cup. I don’t have as many followers as Osman (by a very long chalk) and I had no desire to spam people’s feeds with retweets, so I shelved it.

Then Twitter introduced a nifty poll feature – multiple choice questions you could share on the social network, which stayed active for exactly 24 hours. And that meant that this year Osman’s chocolate bar tournament was bigger and more successful than before. So shamelessly, I pilfered his idea. Thanks Richard Osman!

Moroder's Metropolis
Moroder’s Metropolis
I hoped that the followers of Silent London’s Twitter account would get into it, and boy oh boy they did. To start the draw, I arranged the top 32 films from this list on silentera.com into eight groups of four and set the whole thing live. The Silent Era list, it seemed to me, was fairly uncontroversial – almost too uncontroversial – a consensus view of the established classics. And I assumed that the silent movie hipsters you find online would challenge that. But I was wrong, mostly.

In the end, Osman’s Twitter followers voted for the traddest choc bar imaginable – the dependable Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. And the Silent Londoners voted for … well the number one film on the Silent Era list, The General (1926). I have nothing against The General – it’s an unassailable classic – but I was expecting a giant-killing. The General is probably the Dairy Milk of silent cinema. Not only that, but positions number two and three on the SE list, Metropolis (1927) and Sunrise (1927) were right there in the semi-finals – with Murnau’s film making it through to the final with Buster Keaton.

So perhaps you guys aren’t as iconoclastic as I thought (those of you on Twitter that is), or perhaps from this distance the silent film canon is settled. Maybe a century later we can look at these movies and dispassionately rank them, quality sifting surely to the top. The General, and the majesty of Buster Keaton, aside, there were a few surprises in my World Cup results,* which suggest there is still plenty to play for.

Continue reading “Shaking up the silent canon: is The General the greatest silent film?”

London in colour: talking about Colour in Film

Not that silent film history is complicated, but put it this way: it’s not black and white. Joshing aside, one of the most exciting themes to emerge in recent cinema scholarship is the exploration of film colour – from the earliest hand-painted frames to today’s teal-and-orange “realism”. And it’s arguably more exciting to learn about the colour pioneers and their various attempts to make films appear lifelike – or better than that – than later developments.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

So I thought you’d like to hear about a two-day event in March that puts tinting in the frame – Colour in Film, which takes place in London, at the BFI Southbank and Friends House on Euston Road. The keynote speakers are Sarah Street, who will give a paper on British Cinema in Colour: Creativity, Culture and the Negotiation of Innovation and Barbara Flueckiger, tackling the subject of Bridging the Gap between Analogue Film History and Digital Technology. Other contributions will come from Ulrich Rüdel, Kieron Webb, and more names that will be familiar to you.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)
The Glorious Adventure (1922)

Continue reading “London in colour: talking about Colour in Film”

The Silent London poll of 2015: the winners!

The votes are in! Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to this year’s poll – we had a wide range of responses, and votes cast from around the world. Looking back on the 2015 reveals that it was a very strong year for silent film, which meant that many of these decisions were very close-run things. Congratulations to everyone who won a category – and those who just missed out too.

protesting-suffragettes-early-1900s1
Make More Noise!

The best DVD/Blu-ray of 2015

There have been some corking discs and box sets released this year, so there were several contenders for this prize. But out in front by some distance, was the BFI’s brilliant suffragette compilation with music by Lillian Henley: Make More Noise! Don’t mind if we do.

Make More Noise!
Make More Noise!

The best theatrical release of 2015

Not so many titles up for contention here, and some confusion as to what represents a bona fide theatrical release. Good to see some love for films that were popular on the festival circuit such as Synthetic Sin and The Battle of the Century, even if they weren’t exactly what we were looking for here. However, among several nods to Steamboat Bill Jr and Man With a Movie Camera, your winner was … well why not: Make More Noise! again. Congratulations to Bryony and Margaret Deriaz, who curated this fabulous selection of films.

The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

The best modern silent of 2015

My personal favourite new film of 2015 won this category hands-down. While Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s deaf-school drama The Tribe technically has plenty of dialogue, the fact that said dialogue is entirely in Ukrainain sign language makes this a silent film for most. And an astonishingly powerful one too. Not for the faint-hearted, but a fantastically exciting film nonetheless.

The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera

The best orchestral film screening of 2015

Well you saw some excellent shows in 2015, didn’t you? There were many great nominations for this category, and the title very nearly went to a London screening … but not quite. The winner was the triumphant conclusion to this year’s Pordenone silent film festival: The Phantom of the Opera with Carl Davis’s excellent score played by Orchestra San Marco and conducted by Marc Fitzgerald. I can confirm that this was a blinding performance, but also that the Teatro Verdi lighting stayed firmly in place throughout the show.

Continue reading “The Silent London poll of 2015: the winners!”

Silent London Poll of 2015: shout about your year in silents

Festive greetings, Silent Londoners! It’s the time of year when choirs sing, reindeer run, and magazines and newspapers start launching their best-of-the-year lists. But I don’t care what they think – I want to know how 2015 was for you, silent cinema wise.

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)

For me, it’s been a very interesting year, with a couple of very special modern silent-type films in the cinema, the return of the British Silent Film Festival to its full strength and some great screenings in the capital and beyond. I’ve enjoyed some intriguing silent rediscoveries this year, and returned to a few classics too, notably the centenarian landmark The Birth of a Nation.

Continue reading “Silent London Poll of 2015: shout about your year in silents”

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. | The Baskerville Theme.

Up ↑

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,289 other followers