The Silent London calendar
At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.
We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.
The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.
But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of silent comedy. They say you have to pick one to love, but there is nothing to stop you admiring both. If you’re a Keaton devotee, though, you may have watched the progress of the Cineteca di Bologna’s Chaplin Project with green eyes. Though of course your expression will have been too deadpan to reveal your true feelings.
Over several years and many gala screenings, the Cineteca and the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab, working in collaboration with archives, labs and historians across the world, restored all of Chaplin’s works to the utmost technical standards. You can see the results of these labours in releases such as the recent Chaplin Mutuals Blu-ray, which really is worth adding to your Christmas list. Now it’s Buster’s turn. Using material from the Cohen Film Collection, the Keaton Project will set about buffing and shining all the silent shorts and features made by the Great Stoneface. It’s a mammoth task for the ladies and gents in the lab, but a massive treat for those of us who get to watch the finished films.
London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.
Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; and roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?
Second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century recovered: that’s better than a pie in the face
A cream-filled pie landing – splash – in the face of an adversary is a popular trope of silent slapstick comedy, along with bumbling Keystone Kops and strategically placed banana peel. And now we hear that one of the classic piefights of all time has been rediscovered – the all-out epic splatterfest that crowns Laurel and Hardy’s silent film The Battle of the Century (1927).
That street brawl, involving a van full of pies and a cast of dozens, is gleeful, gore-free carnage – a classic movie moment in its own right. But until now, the fight, and the film it belongs to, have been truncated. The Battle of the Century was formed of two reels, and much of it has been missing since the silent era. The fight itself, or at least most of it, had been preserved, but the rest was not to be found. The first reel was discovered in the late 1970s, but the second reel, which contains the piefight, has been unseen for decades longer.
This book is the result of a powerful encounter that poet Claire Crowther had with a sublime silent film: The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Th Dreyer. The sadly prosaic truth of the matter is that Crowther’s first glimpse of Falconetti’s tear-streaked face was on YouTube, the result of typing “passion” into the search box, hoping to find an image to use in a poem. After seeing Joan, and being moved by it, Crowther set off on another search, however.
That YouTube moment sent Crowther on a silent spree, watching everything that she could find from cinema’s early years: from The ‘?’ Motorist to The Seashell and the Clergyman. Crowther was fascinated by the artistry of the films, by the mystery surrounding their production, and by the “gagged look” of the films’ stars.
Just a quick note to let you know about a season coming up at BFI Southbank, which promises to contain a few silent treasures. London on Film: The Changing Face of London runs from 1 July to 9 October 2015. I’m taken by the idea of a film programme devoted to our favourite city, and hoping that the BFI will make the most of the opportunity to show some great silent dramas, and actuality footage.
Here’s the official blurb:
The BFI present a three month season which celebrates London’s stories through a century of extraordinary film making from archive clips to more modern cinematic adventure. the programme will include over 200 films, from classic features to home movies, shot in London over the last 120 years. For Londoners this season will show the city they know and love, as they may never have known it before.
Already slated are screenings of Anthony Asquith’s Underground and A Night in Victorian and Edwardian London with Bryony Dixon. At the latter event, the BFI’s silent film supremo will introduce archive clips of the capital dated 1881 (!) to 1910. The evening will also include a screening of Joseph Ernst’s captivating short film inspired by Mitchell & Kenyon, Londoners.
UPDATE: Over on Facebook, BFI head curator Robin Baker tells us we can expect films including: “Passmore family films from 1902 (part of London Home Movie Night), The Right to Live (1921), London Old and New (1924), Cosmopolitan London (1924), The Fugitive Futurist (1924), The Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel to Mr Solly Gerschcowit (1925) and Piccadilly (1929)”. Plus, the sound version of High Treason (1929)
So, yesterday I spent the afternoon in the cinema watching 18 movies. Jealous, right? I was lucky enough to be part of the judging panel for the Walthamstow International Film Festival and we were watching the shortlisted works in order to hand out some prizes. It’s a fun job, and a great local festival that I am chuffed to be a tiny part of. All the entries are around five minutes or less, and while the festival encourages local film-makers, particularly young people, it is open to all, and this year we saw films from as far away as Australia, Argentina and Hong Kong. Our overall winner was the fantastically moving, and intriguing, Speed by Jessica Bishop – a film that interrogates the grieving process by counterpointing family photos and voices. A worthy winner indeed.