The Silent London calendar
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.
The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe
Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?
The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.
While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.
Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.
And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good? (1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.
Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.
As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.
Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.
When you become a silent movie blogger no one tells you that you will need a hard hat. Nor that you will occasionally be handed a free glass of fizz. But those of those things happened on Wednesday afternoon when I travelled “up west” to the University of Westminster to see the venue where the first public motion picture screening in the UK took place.
On 21 February, 1896, the Lumière Brothers demonstrated their cinematograph to a paying public (admission: one shilling) in the theatre of the Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London. The theatre had been used for lots of things before the Lumières arrived, including very popular magic lantern shows. Subsequently, it was made into a bona fide cinema, in use until 1980. And the Polytechnic changed too, eventually becoming the University of Westminster, but notably in 1970, as the Polytechnic of Central London, it was one of the first institutions to offer an undergraduate degree in Film Studies.
As for the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph, that is another story …
Now, the University of Westminster is restoring the theatre to some of its former glories: reinstating and repairing the 1926 art deco cinema fittings, and the organ, which was a later addition. There will also be a cafe-bar in the foyer, the capacity to project DCPs as well as film (should that be the other way around?) and all manner of schools programmes and tie-ins with neighbouring bodies.
Unsilent Movies has been touring silent film and live music events for a couple of years now. This month, they are bringing their score for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) to venues across the UK. Percussionist Ric Elsworth tells you a little more about the project in this short video:
And here are those tour dates:
26th October – Leicester Phoenix Cinema
28th October – Shrewsbury Theatre Severn
29th October – Newcastle Tyneside Cinema
30th October – Oxford Ultimate Picture Palace
31st October – London St. James Studio