The Silent London Calendar
Competition time again, Silent Londoners, and this time I am giving away tickets for a night of silent film and live music at one of our favourite venues, Hackney Attic. The lucky winner can look forward to an uproarious evening, featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy (in their first film together) and even Felix the Cat – plus a surprise! This latest event in the Filmphonics series has been put on by the silent film fanatics at the Lucky Dog Picturehouse. Here’s what they have to say about it:
The Lucky Dog Picturehouse specialise in providing an authentic 1920′s silent film experience, with live piano soundtrack. Collecting together 5 of the best silent film shorts ever made by some of the world’s greatest silent stars. Buster Keaton attempts to build his new flat-pack home in the stunt-filled ‘One Week’. You’ll find a love-lorn Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Pawn Shop’. Laurel & Hardy team up for the first time ever in ‘The Lucky Dog’ (featuring a dog to rival Uggie from The Artist). To balance the dog ‘Felix the Cat’ makes a madcap appearance. And the final film is “TBC” but it might involve a certain “Trip to the Moon”. All of the films will be scored by live keyboard accompaniment. Just as they were supposed to be seen.
To win a pair of tickets to the Lucky Dog Picturehouse night, simply email the answer to this simple question to email@example.com with Lucky Dog in the subject header by noon on Friday 17 May 2013.
- In which British town was Stan Laurel born?
The Lucky Dog Picturehouse night at Hackney Attic is on Sunday 19 May at 7.30pm. Tickets start at 7pm for members (with £2 off if you book for The Great Gatsby the same day). Click here to book and for more information.
The Fashion in Film Festival is a movable feast, but one we can always rely on for some wonderful silent film screenings. This year’s event has just begun, and the focus of the festival is the French director Marcel L’Herbier, who worked in both the silent and sound eras, creating captivating, elegant and strange films of staggering beauty. This is what the festival has to say about his silent films:
During the silent period, L’Herbier’s ambition for the cinema was to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a cinéma totalwhich would synthesise all the arts and draw together architects, artists, set designers, couturiers and costume designers. Among the many major cultural figures he collaborated with were the artists Fernand Léger, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, the composers Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger, the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, designers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara, and couturiers Paul Poiret, Lucien Lelong (L’Herbier’s cousin) and Louiseboulanger. Paired with his multi-disciplinary collaborative approach, it was L’Herbier’s desire to legitimise and ennoble cinema as the ‘seventh art’ that helped establish him as a seminal figure within Paris’s vibrant cultural milieu of the inter-war years.
Using art, fashion and design as the prisms through which to examine L’Herbier’s diverse body of work, Fashion in Film’s season highlights his lifelong interest in cinematic style and aesthetics. As the costume designer Jacques Manuel once observed, costume for L’Herbier was so often a way of ‘feeding’ the ‘mechanical eye’ with evocative surfaces and textures, a way of testing the formal elements of cinema itself such as movement, rhythm, light and shadow.
To feed your own eyes, and for a direct lesson in the importance of costume design to L’Herbier’s total vision of cinematic photogénie, watch the festival’s slinky trailer here.
A true multi-disciplinarian, L’Herbier arrived at film-making after considering literature and music as possible careers, and more prosaically, having worked in a uniform factory during the first world war. When Feuillade’s leading lady Musidora took L’Herbier to see Cecil B DeMille’s melodrama The Cheat, he realised the potential of cinema, and starting out in the army’s cinematographic unit, began to learn the art of film-making. However unlikely a start this may seem, even his very first film, a propaganda piece called Rose-France, was ambitiously experimental.
At first, L’Herbier worked for Gaumont, but his artistic dreams soon clashed with the realities of their budgets, and in 1923 he formed his own company, Cinégraphic. You may be familiar with L’Herbier’s silents already, particularly Zola adaptation L’Argent, which is available on DVD from Masters of Cinema. The Fashion in Film Festival is showing L’Argent, as well as sci-fi opera L’Inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman) and doppelganger drama Le Vertige (The Living Image). You can read the full programme of events here. Not showing at the festival, but recently released on Blu-Ray by Flicker Alley in the US, is the Pirandello adaptation Feu Mathias Pascal.
To read more about L’Herbier, and the films showing in the Fashion in Film Festival 2013, read Samuel Wigley’s piece on the BFI website, which includes a sumptuous picture gallery. Also, in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound magazine, David Cairns offers an excellent study of the films showing at the festival and a director he describes as “commingling High Seriousness and High Camp in an ecstatic personal vision”. Now, don’t you want to see what that looks like?
Read more and book tickets, here on the Fashion in Film Festival website. The festival runs from 10-19 May.
Full disclosure: this is basically an advert for IBM. But it tickled me, because this mind-boggling short reminds us that “primitive” film-making is often the most ingenious. This is stop-motion animation at the molecular level, which sounds too convoluted for words. But in the finish, it’s quite adorable.
The ability to move single atoms — the smallest particles of any element in the universe — is crucial to IBM’s research in the field of atomic memory. But even nanophysicists need to have a little fun. In that spirit, IBM researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope to move thousands of carbon monoxide molecules (two atoms stacked on top of each other), all in pursuit of making a movie so small it can be seen only when you magnify it 100 million times. A movie made with atoms.
You can watch a video about the making of A Boy and His Atom here.
As you know, this year the British Silent Film Festival has taken a year off – but luckily for us, it’s the kind of year off where two all-day events still go ahead. Just to keep things ticking over, as it were. So last weekend there was a symposium on British silent cinema, held at King’s College London and organised by Dr Lawrence Napper. The following day the Cinema Museum hosted an all-dayer of screenings, themed on the tantalising idea of “sensation-seeking”.
I attended both events and while it didn’t feel like the festival was running, it was a real treat to be immersed in British silent film in this way. Let’s hope the festival returns back to full strength next year.
The papers at the symposium were limited to 20 minutes apiece, but covered a wide range of topics, from Edwardian theatre to state censorship to international co-productions to saucy novels. One hardly knows where to begin.
There were two papers with a theatrical bent: Ken Reeves’s dip into musical comedy theatre and its links to silent film concluded with some ideas for “crossover” events that would mix theatre, film and audience participation to spread the love about early British cinema. Audience participation? Reader, I sang. Very badly. Theatre historian David Mayer’s unforgettable presentation played and replayed the same baffling scrap of film as he uncovered the truth behind its creation. The scene of a waterfall bursting its bank and bringing down a bridge (and a couch and four) was, it turned out, not shot on location but on stage at the London Hippodrome in 1902, where a collapsible stage could be dropped and filled with water to create watery scenes. There was more – involving elephants on a slide. Elephants. Read more here.
Lucie Dutton, sometimes of this parish, also talked about the stage, presenting a history of film director Maurice Elvey‘s early career – in theatre in London and New York, before moving into the pictures with his star Elisabeth Risdon. She was followed by John Reed from the National Screen and Sound Archive in Wales, who took us through the production, loss, rediscovery and restoration of Elvey’s landmark film, The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Intriguingly, Reed pointed out a few instances in which Elvey could be seen in the film, waving a handkerchief and appearing to direct the action. Could this be because in these scenes the prime minister was played not by Norman Page but by Lloyd George himself? It’s an enticing thought.
Another famous British director was under the spotlight – one even more renowned than Elvey. Charles Barr presented on what we do know, and what we don’t, about the first film that Hitchcock ever shouted action on: Always Tell Your Wife. It’s an adaptation of a stage comedy starring theatre veterans Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss and it seems the director fell out with his inflexible actors and therefore a “fat youth” from the props room was elevated to the job. You may struggle to see bold Hitchcockian strokes in what we have left of the film (which screened at the Cinema Museum on the Saturday), but we do have the director’s handwriting, unmistakably, in an insert shot of a telegram.
Far less well known than Hitchcock, but fascinating to hear about, was showman-turned-film director Mark Melford. His name, just like most of his films, may be lost to time, but Stephen Morgan attempted to flesh out his story, taking his cue from a Bioscope blogpost of 2007 that posed the pertinent question: “Who needs films to write film history anyway?” We did see a clip from the recently rediscovered romp The Herncrake Witch, directed by and starring Melford (amended, see comments) as well as being based on one of his own comic operas and also featuring his daughter (Jackeydawra, named thus due to her parents’ love of Jackdaws. True story). The story of the Melfords was hugely entertaining, but Morgan concluded by making the hugely important point that the study of lost films and forgotten film-makers is vital to a full understanding of the silent film era as a whole.
And of course, one never knows when a lost film will suddenly become an un-lost film. It happened to The Herncrake Witch and The Life Story of David Lloyd George after all. And it wasn’t so long ago that a treasure trove of Mitchell & Kenyon works was unearthed, giving us an invaluable glimpse of (mostly working-class) Edwardian Britain. In one of the day’s most diverting 20-minute segments, Tony Fletcher played a selection of Mitchell & Kenyon’s fiction films, while explaining a little more about them. The films were comedies, often chases and knockabout stuff, all with a backdrop of industrial northern England – factory gates, brick kilns and terraced streets. I particularly liked the mischievous snow comedy and the animated intertitles in a short called (I think) Driving Lucy.
More comedy, but this time of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up school: Alex Rock put recent Leveson revelations in the shade with a paper on the Metropolitan Police’s tangled relationship with the film industry. Its rather heavy-handed Press Bureau, founded in 1919, was popularly known as the Suppress Bureau. You can guess why. Rock’s paper traced the development of an official documentary film, supported by the Met, called Scotland Yard, and the squashing of another, based on the memoirs of a former detective.
The correspondence of public servants baffled, outraged or simply dismissive of the “movies” is unexpectedly entertaining, and never more so than in Jo Pugh’s paper on the official military response to Walter Summers’ The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands. I could barely keep up with the information he was imparting, partly because I was giggling so much. Really. The good news is that we should hear more from Jo’s research and more about the film too as a little bird tells me a full restoration (possibly in time for next year’s Great War centenary) is in process.
Chances to see Irish silents are very far and few between, so this orchestra-accompanied screening of Guests of the Nation promises to be something very special. That title doesn’t refer to Irish hospitality – this film is an adaptation of a Frank O’Connor short story, and the “guests” in question are British hostages of Irish freedom fighters. The author even has a cameo role in the film. It’s a late silent, filmed in the mid-1930s and features a few faces you may recognise from sound films.
I don’t know much about the film myself, but the Barbican website has this to say about it:
Guests of the Nation, preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive, is one of a handful of indigenous dramas made in Ireland during the silent period and is a remarkable work. Here, we are delighted to present the film with live orchestral accompaniment, with Niall Byrne as the composer and David Brophy conducting.
Based on a short story by Frank O’Connor (a frequent contributor to The New Yorker) reflecting his experience in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, the film concerns the friendship between British military prisoners and their IRA captors during the War of Independence.
Shot during the summers of 1933 and 1934 by a group of passionate amateurs under the direction of playwright and theatre director, Denis Johnston, the film features early screen performances from the legendary Barry Fitzgerald, Cyril Cusack, Shelah Richards, Hilton Edwards, Denis O’Dea, and, indeed, Frank O’Connor himself.
To win one of three pairs of tickets to see Guests of the Nation at the Barbican, just send the answer to this question to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Wednesday 10 April. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct entries.
- Guests of the Nation actor Cyril Cusack played the Fireman Captain in which Francois Truffaut film?
Guests of the Nation screens at 4pm on Sunday 14 April at the Barbican Cinema. To book tickets, please click here.
Film-maker Steve Simmons sent me this short film, his second piece of work, and how could I resist sharing it with you? It was shot in south London, in Lambeth in fact, and any hard-working city-dweller will recognise this scene. As a crossword fan, I found Crosswords‘ wry comedy compelling: its premise initially seems simple but spirals into something a touch murkier and more dangerous as events unfold. The witty combination of text and image really caught my attention and I think it’s bound to raise a smile with the readers of this blog.
Steve tells me that he was influenced by the widest possible range of movies, silent or otherwise: “Films that haved inspired me are Metropolis, Once Upon a Time in The West, City Lights, Escape from Alcatraz and I loved The Artist.”
That’s a very diverse list and you’ll notice that although Crosswords is a modern silent, it’s far from an exercise in mimicry. For one thing, it has text, but not intertitles: “I initially considered traditional title cards to display the clues and the man’s thoughts,” says Steve, “but eventually I decided it would work best if the text was incorporated into the action. I think it helps the viewer concentrate on the clues and keeps the story flowing.”
Steve would love to make another silent, he tells me, and not just a short film: “At the moment I’m writing another silent film script but it’s more of a science-fiction based story. One day, if I had the funding I would love to make a feature-length silent – that’s the dream!”
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson.
Sumurun screens with a live score by Amira Kheir at BFI Southbank as part of Birds Eye View Film Festival on Thursday 4 April at 6.10pm. Read more here.
Sumurun is the product of an intensely creative time in the German film industry when an extraordinary range of artistic and entrepreneurial talent emerged: creating ambitious films that challenged American productions for the international market.
Paul Davidson, the director of the German production firm Projektions-AG Union (PAGU), was a film producer unafraid of financial risk-taking and he invested large amounts of capital early on in the industry. In 1918 the company was merged with several other firms under the umbrella of Ufa, with Davidson becoming an executive on its board. Much of Ufa’s success was the result of the absorption of PAGU’s talent, which included directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Wegener and stars such as Pola Negri and Ossi Oswalda. Indeed because of its established reputation it still produced under the PAGU brand and retained a considerable degree of independence.
With financial support from the German bank, Ufa began a policy of big-budget films aimed at the international market. In 1918, Davidson suggested Lubitsch try making one of these Großfilmes, epic productions indebted to the Italian spectacle films, such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) – films which in their budgets and enormous sets were an attempt to compete with Hollywood. Lubitsch assembled a regular production team around him for a series of these ambitious films, including his co-writer Hanns Kräly, the set designer Kurt Richter, and cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl. Famous actors such as Pola Negri added star allure to these films and became a big draw for audiences’ world-wide. Sumurun is one of several extraordinary films that resulted from these collaborations during the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Pola Negri was born Barbara Appollonia Chalupiec in Yanowa, near Lipno in Poland. She took as her professional name the last name of Ada Negri, an Italian poet she admired and the diminutive form of Apollonia as a first name. She had danced at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg and had acted on stage and screen in Poland before being invited by Max Reinhardt to Germany to star in Sumurun (a story derived from The Arabian Nights) after she had appeared in a Polish theatrical version. It was here that Negri met Lubitsch, who was a Reinhardt player and comedy short director at the time, and who was playing the role of the hunchback opposite her in the German theatrical version (a role he would recreate in the film). They became good friends and he made her the star of several of the large-scale costume pictures for Ufa. Lubitsch told her: “We’re going to make a picture of Sumurun. Reinhardt’s letting us have the sets and costumes. We’ll use most of the actors from the stage productions. We’ll hardly even have to rehearse. It’ll cost practically nothing.” (Pola Negri, Memoirs of a Star). Production started in September 1920. It was substantially cut and released by First International in the US in October 1921 with the new title One Arabian Night. Negri remembered its production as: “a very easy and happy chore. Except for a few Lubitsch innovations, it was essentially a photographed stage play.” (Memoirs of a Star)
This kind of dismissive assessment has plagued One Arabian Night, with even relatively recent biographies of Lubitsch granting the film scant attention. However it is an important film, both as an example of Germany’s aesthetic advancements and also in the context of Negri’s and Lubitsch’s career. For instance it was this film that impressed Mary Pickford so much that she brought Lubitsch to the US for Rosita (1923). The film’s critical neglect is most likely a result of viewing the bowdlerised US print, which is missing thirty minutes. Thankfully now we can see the fully restored version.
Many historians agree that German films improved when Hollywood films began to be seen in Germany from 1921, and yet, interesting approaches to cinematography preceding the American influence are evident in films such Sumurun. For instance, in the opening of the film where the light streaming through blinds in the caravan causes chiaroscuro patterns. Cameraman Sparkuhl also has a tendency to hold closeups from a high angle, which adds variety to some of the scenes. Indeed, most of the closeups of Pola Negri, particularly the scenes of her dancing in Sumurun, are shot in this manner. This may have been a way of singling Negri out from the rest of the characters; similar to the technique of filming stars that was developing in Hollywood.
German film’s reputation for elaborate set design is evident in Sumurun. There is a rhythm both in the set design and also in the movement of figures within that design. Lotte Eisner has noted how the American musical would pattern itself on the “delicate arabesques” in this film (The Haunted Screen). Contemporary reviews often observed how Lubitsch’s films were on a par with the best American productions. Variety reviewing the film in 1921 commented: “The production is colorful throughout, the atmosphere of the East being perfect in detail.” These films were incredibly successful in Germany and abroad. Their settings, such as Sumurun’s Persia, and subject matter, offered audiences an escape from everyday reality. Negri observed that “one of the reasons [for the success of Sumurun] was certainly because its intensely romantic oriental fatalism was precisely the kind of escapism a war-weary people craved for” (Memoirs of a Star).
Negri and Lubitsch were among the first international celebrities to be brought to the US – later director-star duos included Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo. Negri arrived under contract with Paramount in 1922 to a storm of publicity. The press went wild over an affair with Charles Chaplin and supposed spats between her and Gloria Swanson, whose top star status at Paramount she challenged. Her vampish screen persona was conflated with anecdotes about her private life. The press spread rumours about her many lovers and delighted in reporting quirky acts such as her walking a tiger on a leash down Hollywood Boulevard.
Negri had became known abroad for playing roles where women exploited their sexuality for economic and political gain (see also Carmen and Madame Dubarry). Her swaggering sexuality is parodied sublimely by Marion Davies in The Patsy (1926). Diane Negra has observed the transformation that her persona undertook in the move from Germany to Hollywood. In the Hollywood films her femme fatale image was tempered and the films frequently ended happily. The American films also deemphasised the ethnic and class dimensions found in earlier films. Her US films were not as successful as the European ones and Negra argues that this was the result of her ethnic sexuality. Her Italian surname, Polish ethnicity and connections to German film industry meant she could not (or would not) be fully assimilated. In public and private she appeared to resist being Americanised. “As the unassimilatable woman, both in ethnic and sexual terms, she stood for a type that was in fact far more transgressive than the thoroughly American, upper-middle-class flapper who, for all her supposed flouting of social conventions, was nearly always safely married off in the end.” (‘Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology’, Diane Negra).