The Silent London calendar
I watched my first silent films, not on my grandpa’s knee, nor at one of these grand screenings with live music that they have nowadays, but in a sixth-form college classroom while being guided through my film studies A-level. It’s not a very romantic story, but I loved what I saw, and while studying for my exams, and subsequently at university, I sought out, saw, and enjoyed many more silents – going from a teenage film fan to an early cinema buff-in-waiting. The film studies syllabus (WJEC, a few years ago now) that I took was great – introducing us to relatively obscure arty silents as well as a healthy appreciation of Hollywood industry mechanics and even a smattering of theory. It stood me in good stead for my English lit & lang degree and a master’s in film history. Plus, I doubt the 18-year-old me would ever have got to see Un Chien Andalou without it. If you want someone to take the blame for Silent London, you can point your finger squarely at a tertiary college in Ealing W5. (I chose the college, incidentally, primarily because it was so close to the famous film studios.)
The point is, I think that sixth form is a great time to introduce people to early and silent film. Teenagers who seek out noisy bands and edgy art want off-beat films to watch too. Silents fit the bill perfectly. There’s something off-kilter about silent movies when you first meet them, and something unexpected about a supposedly modern subject area taking you so far back into the past.
Cheering then, to see Keith Withall’s Studying Early and Silent Cinema land on my desk. It’s an expansion of a 2007 volume and clearly informed by two things: his years spent teaching film studies at FE and HE level, and a passion for attending the film festivals at Pordenone and Bologna. This is a useful work for anyone interested in silent cinema to use as a reference but a great introduction to the subject for students. It’s a read-this-now-watch-that thing, and I’m all for it. Not only that, but Withall blogs too, posting thoughtful, erudite essays at cinetext.wordpress.com
Withall’s expanded book is an enjoyable and wide-ranging introduction to the key concepts and landmarks in the early and silent film period. This guide tackles a breathtakingly vast amount of material in the clearest of terms, and always with one eye on the here-and-now. There are references not just to modern films and attitudes, but also practical consideration of the availability of viewing material. Case studies examine classic films in detail, while wider sweeps take in potted histories of alternative and smaller national cinemas. Throughout, Withall encourages students towards wider exploration of the subject area – and most importantly, towards further viewing.
Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall will be on sale in May 2014, priced £16.99 in paperback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-69-8) and £50 in hardback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-70-4), published by Auteur
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson. If you haven’t seen The Wind, be warned that this article discusses the ending of the film.
Ethereal, delicate, poetic, otherworldly are just some of the somewhat elusive adjectives used to describe Lillian Gish since the early years of her stardom. Effusive admirer Vachel Lindsay said “Lillian Gish could be given wings and a wand if she only had directors and scenario writers who believed in fairies.” However, in reality Gish had her feet firmly on the ground. She had a career spanning eight decades, was a spokeswoman for cinema’s history with high artistic ambitions for herself and for the medium. King Vidor, who directed her in La Boheme (1926) commented: “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”
In his autobiography A Tree is a Tree Vidor said that Gish was incredibly assertive and had her own thoughts about the filmmaking process. Indeed, she knew a great deal about cinematography and in particular lighting. She had learned her trade during the more collaborative process of the silent era, where she had received extensive tutelage from DW Griffith in a production context where actors frequently worked without scripts and where they were encouraged to collaborate on characterisation and staging. She may only have had had a small acting role in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), however she designed and furnished sets, helped with lighting and cutting, wrote intertitles and advertising copy.
Genuinely exciting news for silent film fans. A long-thought-lost film starring the wonderful Betty Balfour, and directed by the somewhat elusive George Pearson, has been returned to us. The film is Love, Life and Laughter (1923): Betty “Queen of Happiness” Balfour stars in a typically winning role as Tip Toes, an impoverished chorus girl who dreams of fame on the music-hall stage. She befriends a young aspiring writer, also down on his luck, and they decide on a plan – to meet two years later back at their tenement building to see if either of them have achieved their fondest wishes.
Love, Life and Laughter was found in a cinema in Hattem, in the Netherlands. The cinema was due to be rebuilt and so the anonymous film cans stored there were taken to EYE, the the Dutch Film Museum, in the hope that they might contain footage of local historical interest.
The BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, welcomes the discovery with open arms, saying:
Contemporary reviewers and audiences considered Love, Life and Laughter to be one of the finest creations of British cinema, it will be thrilling to find out if they’re right! We hope to be able to acquire some material from our colleagues at EYE soon so that British audiences can have a chance to see this exciting discovery.
We know that the copy EYE has acquired of Love, Life and Laughter has Dutch intertitles and has the original tints and tones intact – and we do have reason to believe that it is a very special picture. Contemporary reviews praised the film, with the Telegraph saying it was “destined in all probability to take its place among the screen classics”. In the Manchester Guardian, CA Lejeune’s gives nicely rounded sense of the film, and its importance:
Love, Life and Laughter is the latest Pearson film, and legend has it that the latest Pearson film is aways the best. It is certainly the most ambitious, spectacular at times in the De Mille ballroom manner, lit and photographed with a beauty to dream of. Devotees have called it George Pearson’s masterpiece, and so it is – of bluff. He lights common things uncommonly, and legend makes them symbolic; he catches a series of farcical situations, and legend makes them comic; legend turns sentimentality into sentiment, and confusion into mystery.
This fantasy of a chorus girl and a young poet is clever, but chiefly clever in simulating cleverness, in tickling the intellectual vanity of its audience with a goose feather, coloured peacock by imagination. It will succeed. And its success will be the result not of innate quality but of the great Welsh-Pearson legend – and, when all is said and done, nothing else matters.
That rather guarded review takes on a new aspect when we remember that the “great Welsh-Pearson legend” has now been forgotten, and their films have almost entirely vanished – which has the affect of rather enhancing the title’s allure. Until its rediscovery, Love, Life and Laughter sat on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of much-missed British films.
A 1923 programme for the film offers this romantic and tantalising description:
“The Story is but a simple exposition of the oldest, yet ever youngest desire of the human heart, the achievement of an earnest ambition. The incidents tell in picture form of the striving of a boy and girl, against the odds of the world. The portrayal of this struggle towards a final goal of the desired happiness is unconventional in treatment. The Boy and Girl laugh and weep, succeed and fail, move onward and forward to an inevitable destiny, and to a climax which should live long in the memory.”
One of the many attractive elements to this news is that the film’s subject matter – of two starry-eyed types struggling to achieve their artistic ambitions – resonates against the life stories of the director and star both. Poignantly, in light of the fact that this film has been missing for so long, both Balfour and Pearson were highly acclaimed in the silent era and subsequently forgotten by most. It’s discoveries such as this, in fact, that make us appreciate anew how terrible the odds of survival for silent cinema are – with 75% of silents by the wayside, for each one we treasure there are three more we may never see.
Why Change Your Wife? screens with a live score by Niki King as part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival on 10 April 2014 at BFI Southbank, at 6.10pm
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson
Cecil B DeMille is perhaps predominantly remembered for his big-budgeted biblical epics of the 1940s and 50s. For instance, the captivatingly lurid Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments are both still television staples. However, DeMille had a career that spanned several decades and he made more than 50 films in the silent era alone. Many of these early titles were similarly lavish and sensationalist, whilst also seeking to exploit contemporary social concerns.
Jesse L Lasky, Vice President of Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), encouraged “modern stuff with plenty of clothes, rich sets, and action”. Savvy to the growing female audience, Lasky contracted screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson to portray women “in the sort of role that the feminists in the country are now interested in … the kind of girl that dominates … who jumps in and does a man’s work.” The result was several delightful, enormously successful, marital comedies, starting with Old Wives for New and followed by Don’t Change Your Husband. Why Change Your Wife? completes the “does what it says on the tin” trilogy. With their focus on female glamour and desire, these films offer more permutations of the “New Woman”, which Birds Eye View has explored in previous Sound & Silents strands.
Considering his somewhat indomitable, patriarchal image, it is perhaps surprising to find a large number of women amongst Demille’s regular collaborators. Anne Bauchens edited his films, from Carmen (1915) all the way through to The Ten Commandments (1959), his last film. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that it was an essential clause in every contract that she be his editor. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner he is quoted as saying that: “‘though a gentle person, professionally she is as firm as a stone wall … We argue over virtually every picture.”
At Silent London, we like to offer a warm and cuddly welcome to all silent film enthusiasts, from novices to nerds. But which are you?
This quiz is just a bit of fun … but do report back in the comments if you are delighted or outraged by the results.
And of course, if you feel the need to brush up your geekiness – sample a screening or two on the Silent London calendar.