The Silent London calendar
Well hello there, Elephant & Castle tube station. A few months back I wrote about the many wonders of the Kennington Bioscope – a regular silent screening event held at the Cinema Musesum, south London. Short version: it’s ace.
Now the Kennington Bioscope has gone one better than brightening up our Wednesday evenings. The Kennington Bioscope Weekender will take over the Cinema Museum for two days in the summer – 20 & 21 June – to screen a mouth-watering selection of silent films.
Two things to note straight away – first, the majority of these films will be shown on film, either 35mm or 16mm. The website makes it clear which is which. And second, the films have been chosen and will be introduced by an estimable group of film historians including Kevin Brownlow.
Alfred Hitchcock may be the only British director of the silent era we don’t automatically label “underappreciated”, or “little-studied”. From Leytonstone to Los Angeles his fame is global, his influence inescapable. After the films themselves, and the TV series, the books, the biopics, the magazine articles and yet more books, there isn’t a cinephile alive who can’t pronounce with some authority on the Master of Suspense.
One subject that all Hitchcock “experts” can expand upon is the MacGuffin device – the pursuit of an elusive object that drives the narrative of a film forward, allowing the business proper to take place along the way. One way of looking at this new book by scholars Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr would be that it is a magnificent MacGuffin hunt. Hitchcock Lost & Found: the Forgotten Films goes after the grey patches on Hitchcock’s CV, the abandoned, incomplete or a loosely connected works that linger largely unwatched and unappreciated.
As well as missing films, this book tracks down the films that Hitchcock scripted, or art-directed, or otherwise assisted on, or one where he jumped into the director’s chair halfway through shooting. The discovery of a few reels of The White Shadow (Graham Cutts, 1923) in 2011 proves that a film doesn’t to be Hitchcock through-and-through to raise the heart rate. And it’s surely not too much to hope that on the trail of these MacGuffins, a hardy Hitchophile could learn a thing or two about Psycho, Rear Window and the man who made them? Not to mention that impressive string of surviving silents running from The Pleasure Garden to Blackmail or Hitchcock’s famously “lost” film, The Mountain Eagle?
This is a guest post for Silent London by Carl Davis CBE to celebrate the 126th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth. Renowned as a composer, Davis is a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has written music for more than 100 television programmes, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films – including his score for the Kevin Brownlow restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon.
In 2003 and 2004 the British Film Institute released, in two volumes, 12 comedy shorts by Charlie Chaplin, created by him at the contractual rate of one a month across the years 1916-1917. They are known today as “The Mutuals” after the company that produced them and, as in my case, they are often the first glimpse that people have into the art of Chaplin. My first adult look at this project occurred in 1983 while scoring the Thames Television three-part series Unknown Chaplin: virtually the entire first episode consisted of an analysis of Charlie’s working methods, brought to light after a hidden cache of Mutual out-takes had recently been discovered.
The next step forward occurred in 1989 after the successful experiment of transcribing the orchestral score and parts of the 1930 recorded soundtrack of City Lights for a live performance at London’s Dominion Theatre. The performance started a vogue, thriving today, of stripping the scores from the soundtracks of all manner of sound films and performing them live. After the London screening I found myself conducting City Lights around the world and subsequently I expanded my Chaplin repertoire with The Gold Rush and The Kid. Out of sheer enthusiasm I added the shorts The Immigrant and Easy Street to my list. But the real impetus to continue came in 2003 when I discovered that the BFI were planning to release the complete Mutuals. I declared my interest and our collaboration began.
If you attend the occasional silent movie screening, like I do, you’ll have experienced a particular bittersweet feeling. As much as you enjoyed the show, you fear you could never quite recreate the magic. You know the film is out there waiting for you to watch again (somehow), but nine times out of 10, the improvised music that accompanied it lives only in the corner of your memory.
The genius of improvisation is that the melodies, or that special combination of them, are conjured out of thin air, and disappear just as fast. Unless … someone, say Neil Brand, were to sit down at the piano and record some of those tunes for posterity.
So that is exactly what Brand has done – he has released an album of some of his favourite tunes to accompany classic silent films (from Pandora’s Box to Safety Last!). It’s a pleasure to listen to, and an enjoyably infuriating silent movie quiz too: the sleeve notes will tell you which film each track belongs to: can you guess without looking, and for an extra 10 points, can you pinpoint the scenes that inspired each excerpt?
Over to Brand’s notes to explain further:
In this album I have tried, for the first time, to give my improvised silent movie accompaniments a little life of their own away from the films, as piano pieces. They carry the essence of my musical thoughts on what these films are about, but you can listen to them without knowing the films, and let the pieces create your own pictures in your head.
Those sleeve notes also include a short intro by Brand to each film. So if you like what you hear, and you haven’t yet encountered the movie in question … well you couldn’t really ask for a better introduction.
I’ve had a listen to the album, and it really is wonderful. What I didn’t expect, was to feel the same shivers down my spine that I would experience when watching Louise Brooks dance, or Murnau’s camera swooping through the morning mist. This is the most evocative of music – I felt that I was in the film as much as viewing it, whirling through the streets of Berlin (People on Sunday), Charlestoning with Clara Bow (It), marching in step with John Gilbert (The Big Parade) and dangling precariously with Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!).
“If a cinema could give you a hug, this is what it would feel like.” That’s how Bryony Dixon described the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Sight & Sound last year, and as usual, she’s not wrong.
This year I returned for my second trip to the festival, now in its fifth year, and the welcome was warm, the music was fabulous, the films magnificent and the crowds enthusiastic.
It’s a tribute to Ali Strauss, Shona Thomson and all the team behind Hippfest that this small town in Scotland draws silent movie fans from across the country (and the globe) as well as introducing the locals to the delights of EA Dupont, Mikhail Kalatazov and Buster Keaton. I had a stonking time in Bo’ness this year, and would recommend the festival to anyone who loves movies, music and merriment.
Here’s what I took home from Hippfest this year:
A tan. Well, a vitamin D topup at least. I made all the usual wry comments about “sunny Scotland” in the runup to my trip, but Bo’ness was truly bonny this weekend, and my, the Firth of Forth looks stunning in the sunshine.
More recruits for the Colleen Moore fanclub. It was an absolute honour for me to introduce the Friday night gala screening of Synthetic Sin – and I just knew that Ms Moore would charm the spats off the assembled audience. It was a fantastic screening, with raucous laughter threatening to drown out Neil Brand’s spirited accompaniment at times. All the gala shows were sold out – well almost all of the events were – which I think goes to show that people are prepared to take a chance on films, and stars, that they haven’t heard of before. I’m not sure the Hippodrome crowd will forget Colleen in a hurry though.
The fear of God. Well, flippancy aside, I was looking forward hugely to the Thursday night screening of William S Hart western Hell’s Hinges, not least because it would be scored by those groovy cats the Dodge Brothers. But as the band struck up and immediately began crooning “Satan is real” a shiver ran down my spine. The movie provided fire and brimstone, and the Brothers gave it space to breathe and fan those flames. A massively atmospheric screening, and a wonderful opener to my festival. So few people get a chance to see a pre-1920s film on the big screen at all – let alone with so much added cool.
Trust me, I have never been ready for my close-up. But when I backed the new silent film project London Symphony, I recklessly ticked the box to say that yes, I’d be in the movie. I envisaged the back of my head in a crowd, perhaps. Something nice and anonymous.
But cometh the hour, cometh the poseur, and today I spent an hour or so shooting a snippet of a scene for London Symphony. Or sitting mostly still and doing what I was told while trying not to get the giggles. Here’s what I learned from my experiences on a silent movie “set”:
- There’s a reason those silent-era directors had megaphones. We were filming on the Victoria line (yes, we had permission) and while no doubt director Alex Barrett was talking me through my big scene, I could barely hear a word he said.
- There are a lot of angles to cover – two cameras, shooting front-on, overhead, from a distance, crammed next to my cheek … The London Symphony crew were using handheld digital cameras, of course, I can’t imagine how this would play out with a wooden-boxed hand-cranked job.
- I didn’t realise how much structure dialogue gives to a scene. I’m not an actor, so of course I was going to feel a little self-conscious being photographed by those moving picture contraptions. But without anything to say, I really felt a little untethered. Anything could happen! Luckily Adam Hickey, the actor I was working with, was actually an actor and very professional.
- Londoners are not in the least bit fazed by seeing people filming and playacting on the tube. We caused not a ruffle. Though Alex did tell me that amateur photographers often approach him in the street to chat about the gear. Mmmm, lenses.
Lucas has co-written the series with Julian Dutton, and he plays the title character: “an elderly oddball aristocrat who has fallen on hard times”. Alex MacQueen plays his long-suffering butler, Hove. And they have a canine companion, too: the elegant Marion, an Afghan hound.
New silent comedy on our screens is always a cause for joy and anticipation – so we’re very keen to see how this one pans out. There are six 30-minute episodes to come, and in each of them, we are promised, Pompidou and Hove face a new, bizarre, challenge.