The Silent London calendar
Four years ago today, this site was just a twinkle in my web browser, and now, Silent London has 500-odd posts, 5,000 followers on Twitter and I’ve had a whole heap of fun.
This is just a self-indulgent post to commemorate the blog’s birthday and say thanks to you for reading, posting, commenting, contributing and generally being fabulous. Enjoy this lovely clip of a four-year-old Baby Peggy while you’re here – she’s a little steadier on her feet than this site, and cuter too, but it’s something to aim for, right?
Here’s to the next year, and before you go, don’t forget to vote in the 2014 poll.
Spies are cool. Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.
“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi, is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.
Just in time for Christmas, Masters of Cinema is rereleasing some more of its silent back catalogue, in gorgeous new dual-format DVD/Blu-ray editions. This is a Good Thing no doubt, and if there is one title especially suited for the pantomime season it’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – a middle eastern romp starring Douglas Fairbanks as Ahmed, a light-fingered adventurer, beautifully photographed and bulging with the last word in 1920s special effects.
Forget the effects for a minute though, forget Raoul Walsh behind the camera, Anna May Wong slinking around the corners, and William Cameron Menzies’s towering sets, and settle in for the Douglas Fairbanks show. This is Fairbanks at his very best: fortysomething, athletic, beaming, stripped to the waist and bouncing in and out of giant pots, swashbuckling and soaring through the air and under the sea. If you want to understand why Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood, this is a key text. He burns up the screen here, forcing you to smile, to chuckle, to gasp in awe at his latest trickery or feat of physical prowess, daring you to remain unmoved. It would take a heart of stone not to relent – it’s his ambition as producer that lends this film its grand scale, and his radiant personality that wins the audience’s affection as well as its awe.
But you will have to possess a mind as gymnastic as Fairbanks’ buff body not to be troubled by the fact that this movie is pure orientalist claptrap. It can be done – Fairbanks on a magic carpet with his princess Julanne Johnston by his side is a sight beauteous enough to tempt you into a little light doublethinking duty. Just like Ahmed, you’ll have to earn your happiness here. It’s not a nasty film, but it is an ignorant one. If it weren’t for the gloss of that stunning production design and the stardust sprinkled by its leading man, that would be all we had to write about. As it is, we can take heart from the fact that the guff that underpins this movie is mostly well-intentioned but misguided romanticism. Rather this, you could argue, than yet another flick where the only middle eastern characters are bloodthirsty terrorists.
The chances are, you will recognise the name on the spine of this book. Farran Smith Nehme is one of the smartest, most elegant writers on classic and silent film that you can find. She blogs at her own site called Self-Styled Siren, and writes for publications from Film Comment to the New York Post. The chances are that you will recognise some of the characters in Missing Reels, Smith Nehme’s debut novel, also.
There are a few names dropped here that will chime – from Kevin Brownlow to Jean Harlow to Mordaunt Hall, in fact this novel is peppered with more classic film references than you might think feasible. But it’s the personalities here that will resonate. Ceinwen, our heroine, is a young woman living in a scuzzy New York flatshare in the late 1980s, working in a vintage dress shop and spending all her free time at the movies watching the classics. She’s a bit of a mess, but she’s all right by me. Her job is awful, and low-paid – she is sustained only by cigarettes, hairdye and the pleasure she gets from sashaying around town in a genuine 1930s ensemble. By chance (don’t roll your eyes), Ceinwen discovers that her grumpy downstairs neighbour once starred in a silent movie, a lost curio directed by a precocious talent. That’s all it takes to get Ceinwen hooked on the hard stuff, and before you know it, our vintage vixen is a deeply embedded within the silent film nerd community.
Now, I’m not a nerd, and you’re not a nerd (though you may be a geek), but some of those silent movie fans out there are a little nerdy don’t you think? Not that there is anything wrong with that. Missing Reels is a paean to nerds and nerdery – I felt my silent movie obsession toughening up with every page I turned. Ceinwen’s hunt for those abandoned reels takes her, and her stuffy English academic boyfriend, through film fairs, archives, private collections and secret stashes. She meets people who love silent cinema and people who fetishise and hoard it – but mostly, people who respect it. I love the sequence when she settles down to watch her first Roscoe Arbuckle two-reelers at a Mack Sennett fanclub screening.
“this was the best silent-movie audience she’d ever encountered. No restlessness … No talking. Every laugh was related to something on screen. They picked up every gesture, no matter how small. The first glimpse of Fatty – Roscoe got a round of applause, Mabel Normand’s face got an audible sigh, Buster Keaton got a shout of recognition … And Arbuckle was a marvel, holding his own even with Keaton, supple and flexible in the way he moved.”
The silent-movie bug can be contagious that way. When you’re with people who love silent cinema, those old movies seem to be even more precious.
I saw a lot of myself in Ceinwen – I suspect there is rather a lot of Smith Nehme in there too – and I have met a few Freds, Harrys and even Andrews too, her mostly lovable, mostly eccentric guides through the silent cinema maze. How could you not adore Harry, a cinephile maths professor who encourages Ceinwen’s flickering interest, and who patiently drops this sassy line on a firefighter dead set on destroying a cache of nitrate: “Think of it more like, the Mona Lisa happens to be really flammable”? In fact, Ceinwen joins their ranks – going from film fan to silent “nut” in a few hundred pages. This is really a book about passion, misdirected, perverted or beautifully nourishing – it’s Fever Pitch for the Pordenone crowd. You could write a book like this about stamp collecting I suppose, but it wouldn’t have the same glamour for me.
I must confess, the hilarious scene in which Ceinwen attempts to keep her end up in an awkward post-sex conversation with that no-good British boyfriend of hers, while simultaneously reading a movie monograph, was almost too close to my bones. Smith Nehme knows better than most what it is to be immersed in this world, and Missing Reels is a portrait of a woman following her heart and blowing her cool at the same time. That’s what makes it funny, and poignant too.
Now I asked you not to roll your eyes earlier, because we have seen a few hunt-for-a-lost-movie novels before. But that doesn’t stop us getting excited when it happens in real life does it? And the Murnauesque Gothic romance that Ceinwen makes it her mission to uncover really does sound like a beauty. Part of this novel’s charm is that we’d all like to discover a lost film. And more than that, we’d all like to represent for silent cinema, to combat the prejudices that the elderly star of that film, the snippy neighbour, has clearly taken to heart: “Ooooh folks, here’s this little clip from the dark ages, before everybody figured out how it was really done. Don’t worry, it’s not too long, we don’t want to bore anybody.” That’s Ceinwen’s real mission.
Now it’s my turn to blow my cool. I love this book: it’s witty and sharp and feminine and fabulous. If you know how to pronounce Borzage, if the mere mention of a nitrate copy of Flaming Youth sets your heart a-flutter and if you’ve ever worn a scarf in your hair and hoped you looked like Clara Bow, then this is the novel for you.
- Missing Reels is out now in the US, published by The Overlook Press, priced $26.95. It will be published in the UK by Duckworth in spring 2015.
If you missed the London Film Festival gala screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands last month, and it isn’t showing at a cinema near you, and you can’t wait for the home video release in February 2015 … well all is not lost. Walter Summers’ naval epic is avilable on the BFIplayer, in the comfort of your own computer, and you can rent it for just £10, or £8.50 for BFI members.
But what is more, from 11.02am on Tuesday 11 November 2014, for 24 hours, streaming The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands is totally, delightfully free.
To whet your appetite, this short video about scoring the movie is free – all the time.
There are several more British silent films on the BFIplayer, as you might expect, in glistening high-definition. Here’s a quick Silent London top 10, in no particular order:
- The Epic of Everest (1924) – £3.50
- High Treason (silent version, 1929) – £2.50
- Christmas Carol (1914) – free
- Scenes at Chester on the River Dee (1901) – free
- Underground (1928) – £3.50
- Flowers of London (1924) – free
- The Great White Silence (1924) – £3.50
- The Mistletoe Bough (1904) – free
- Ladies on Bicycles (1899) – free
- Cocaine (1922) – £1
And a couple of little-known gems from foreign parts, as a bonus:
Hello dear readers. Unfortunately we took a break in 2013, but this year we want to resume normal service and bring back the Silent London Poll. It’s an expanded survey this year – you can vote for your favourite screening in several categories, your favourite venue and festival, and even your silent hero of 2014.
It won’t take you long to fill in, and we’ll be publishing the results on the site at the end of the year, so please have a little think about your highlights of the year, and share your favourites with everyone else!
The poll closes on 13 December 2014. Thanks for taking part!
For Jacques Tati, diegetic sound is about as useful as headlights on a broom. He’d rather not illuminate anything with such a crude tool. Playtime, his masterpiece, is a work of brow-furrowing complexity in its design and structure, but a model of narrative clarity.
Amid the Babel of un-synched language spouted by its multiple characters, Tati tells us a story of a man, M Hulot, trying to negotiate a city, Paris, that doesn’t exist. Only Hulot (Tati, of course), and an American tourist, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) seem to notice that the steel and glass skyscrapers of the soaring sixties have hidden the real city, obscuring its landmarks and dividing its citizens. Tati goes to a business meeting, is diverted to a furniture show, meets an old friend who invites him home for a drink, attends the opening of a restaurant, meets a girl and loses her, all in the space of 24-odd hours.
Each twist in Hulot’s meander is a prompted by a mistake or misapprehension. His attempt to refuse to enter the restaurant shatters the door and he stumbles inside unwillingly. If I tried to explain to you why a German door salesman then ushers him further into the dining room I would expend many, many words to explain a labyrinthine incident earlier in the film that is played out in at least three languages, none of which needed subtitles at all.
Trust me, it was a wonderful moment. I felt that door salesman’s anger, his hostility, his sarcasm, his deep shame and his ingratiating warmth so deeply, because they were so strongly expressed, not because I translated “Dumbkopf!” in my head. The only skills you need to understand this film are patience and observation, which transparently makes my German GCSE barely worth the paper it is written on.