The Silent London calendar
Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
If HG Wells could fix it for you to travel back to the silent era, you surely would, right? And while no doubt it would be enlightening to talk shop in the studios and editing rooms of 1920s Hollywood, it’s arguable that the real action would be in the nightclubs and hotel suites. Take it from me, the catering would be … interesting.
Many of you will know Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris. Jenny Hammerton works as a film archivist, and runs the wonderful Silver Screen Suppers site on the side. She’s researching a forthcoming book of recipes from classic film stars, you see. Nathalie Morris works at the BFI as an archive curator, and also blogs about food: the Food on Film site recreates meals from movies. She is working with Jenny on a different book, along the same lines, but dedicated to the most important meal of the day – the cocktail hour.
Such a noble pursuit deserves all our support, of course, so myself and a few other selfless souls tripped up to Nathalie’s flat on the weekend to sample some cocktails and canapés. As the evening was undertaken in the name of research, not simple fun, here is what we learned.
- We may remember Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson as health freaks, but they let their hair down occasionally, culinary speaking. Garbo layered bacon over healthsome cottage cheese and rye bread to create a rather unwieldy canapé. Swanson deviated from the ways of brown rice for, what else, tempting bites topped with caviar.
- Edith Roberts‘ sweetcorn fritters require a LOT of lard for deep-frying. Fear not, though, as our group couldn’t quite choose between the lighter veggie versions and the lardy originals in the final analysis.
- Solid and unexciting to look at, they may have been, but Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers’ potato and nut croquettes were seriously savoury – with a rich seam of nuts down the centre. Unexpectedly toothsome.
- Zasu Pitts is an idiosyncratic one. We all loved her omelette with hot spanish sauce. But the Greed star cheated us of any actual spice in that sauce – hot in name only. And there was baking powder – yes, baking powder – in the omelette.
- The parties thrown by Marion Davies may have gone down in Hollywood legend, but her cheese patties were unlikely to get anyone hot under the collar – tasty yes, but rather chunky and bland for a canapé. Perhaps they were just there to soak up the booze?
It’s remarkable what you can pick up in three minutes and 45 seconds. This short video by Gary Chapman, author of London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, is an excellent introduction to the British Famous Players-Lasky outpost.
This is the time and the place where Victor Saville and Michael Balcon began their ascent through the British movie industry, where Ivor Novello smouldered for Graham Cutts, and where Alfred met Alma, while making a film or two you may have heard of …
Pola Negri’s Madame Dubarry has it. You know exactly what I am talking about. Dubarry is living and loving in the heat of pre-revolutionary Paris, but she’s more than enough trouble for the aristos all by herself. “The woman who will ruin France” is first introduced as a breath of fresh air, whispering saucy jokes to the other girls in the seamstresses’ workroom – a ripple of fun in the stuffy atmosphere of the atelier. When she leaves the shop, Dubarry collects admirers with every step, like Clara Bow in a crinoline. Before long, of course, she’s the mistress of Louis XV, creating disarray in the court, just as she did in the shop.
Ernst Lubitsch is brilliant at capturing this, the sizzle of sex appeal so hot that it can turn a king’s head, transform a society ball into an orgy, or raise an angry mob at the palace gates. Madame Dubarry has the angst of a drama, but the vigour of a comedy, and Negri has exactly the attitude that the part demands. Dubarry isn’t a calculating seductress, just a natural-born pleasure-seeker: a minx who decides which lover to visit by pouting as she pulls at the bows on her bodice. And Negri commits fully to the role of a beautiful woman in ugly circumstances – those enormous eyes are flirting one moment and filled with anguish the next. Some people are allergic to Negri’s grand emoting, the head flung back, the flailing arms. But there’s plenty there’s naturalistic and light here: watch her face as Jannings trims her fingernails, revelling in pleasure and pain. And yes, there’s also an opportunity for Negri to rehearse her most notorious scene – hysterically throwing herself across her lover’s coffin.
This is a guest post by Henry K Miller for Silent London. Henry K Miller is the editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and has taught film at the University of Cambridge.
Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.
FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.
“In the early days of the cinema, there were several great City Symphonies – for Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, but never for London. Alex Barrett is going to put that right, and his plans suggest a remarkable picture.” – Kevin Brownlow
A few months back, I promised you the chance to support the making of a new London City Symphony. Now the day has arrived, as the London Symphony team have launched their crowdfunding campaign. They need the help of Silent Londoners to turn their vision into a reality. They’re asking for your financial support, and offering you some chances to be involved in the making of the film too. If you can’t afford to help out yourself, they’d love you to spread the word about the project.
Alex Barrett, the film’s director (and Silent London contributor) explains why he wants to revive the City Symphony style for his new film: “We believe that by looking at the present through recourse to the past, we can learn something new about life today,” he says. “We won’t be parodying the style. We will be true to the spirit of the filmmakers that came before us, and we hope to capture the rhythm, the motion and the experimentation that made their films so wonderful, while simultaneously reimagining the City Symphony for the 21st Century”.
LONDON SYMPHONY is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture, religion and design via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
Alongside making the film, the team will also be creating a new score – an original symphony – written by composer James McWilliam. Says James: “Music plays an important role in silent cinema, and our score will help take viewers on a journey through modern-day London”. The filmmakers plan to record the music with a live orchestra, but also have it performed live at special event screenings of the finished film. LONDON SYMPHONY reunites the team behind the short film HUNGERFORD: SYMPHONY OF A LONDON BRIDGE. A three-minute city symphony in its own right, the short film now serves as a pilot for the team’s intentions with the feature-length LONDON SYMPHONY.
You can visit the London Symphony crowdfunding page here. Check out the range of rewards and watch the video, in which the film-makers set our their plans for the movie.
I barely knew a thing about Charles Lane this time last week. But since Saturday night I have been trying to find out as much as I can. Twenty five years ago, Lane directed a modern silent film of great style and bounteous charm, which was warmly received at the time, but has barely been heard from since. Like so much in the history of silent film, Sidewalk Stories (1989) is buried treasure, though from a rather more recent past. The good news is that the tail end of 2014 may finally be the time when Sidewalk Stories gets its due. The likelihood is that you will get a chance to see it soon, and I definitely recommend you take the opportunity when it arises.
As a film student, Lane was apparently very sniffy about silents, but when a chum insisted that he catch a screening of The Gold Rush, he relented. Chaplin worked his magic, and Lane was hooked for life. The influence of Chaplin is powerfully strong in Sidewalk Stories, a silent black-and-white comedy shot on the streets of New York; Lane directs and stars in the film, which has more than a touch of The Kid about it. Lane plays a street artist, who sleeps rough in a derelict building in Greenwich Village (yes, you might say he was a tramp), but, through some convoluted circumstances finds himself in charge of a small child. No messing about: the Artist’s foldup easel looks uncannily like the window-repair kit Chaplin equips himself with in the earlier movie. It’s clear that Lane has an eye for the most devilish of details. Lane’s two-year-old daughter plays the Child, and although it seems strange to critique a toddler’s performance, she’s fantastic and of course, utterly adorable. Sandye Wilson, an elegant woman with a devastating smirk, plays the Artist’s bewildering and benevolent love interest. Lane’s character is a cheeky one, all right, and a dreamer too: a nonchalant riff on Chaplin’s Tramp, which retains the sweetness and the acrobatics of the original but with a pared-down ego. Lane’s Artist is a more of an everyman than a showstopping clown: a little guy in a zip-up denim shirt and cargo pants with neatly cropped hair. Perhaps it’s because the big city is just a wee bit more terrifying in the late 80s. The Manhattan of this movie is perniciously hostile: crushing Lane’s character, and maybe squashing his performance a little too.
No matter. Here’s why Sidewalk Stories is easily worth 97 minutes of your precious time. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s very clever and it has a quite remarkable lightness of touch. There’s some virtuoso material here, including some fantastically choreographed fight scenes and (a first for a silent movie?) a fantasy slapstick sex nightmare. There’s not a single intertitle here either. Most impressive of all perhaps is a sustained tracking shot early on that takes us from one end of a street in the Village to another, from the panhandlers and street sleepers, to the Artist’s patch where he and his fellow dancers and magicians are busy making believe that they are anywhere but urban hell. There’s some comic business with a piece of string and two beds that is simultaneously hilarious and terribly sad. I also enjoyed the way that a laugh-out-loud, but silly, gag at the start of the movie with yuppies grappling over a yellow cab (it’s the 80s, I’m allowed to call them yuppies) was replayed later on with a more sinister meaning. I particularly liked the fact that the second time around the carfight takes place during a chase that’s straight out of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy – Lane was clearly in close touch with his New York silent forebears.