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The New York Hat (1912): what women want 

This is a very slightly fleshed-out transcript of an introduction I gave to The New York Hat at the Kennington Bioscope as part of an evening dedicated to women in silent film.

It’s quite old, and very short, but The New York Hat (DW Griffith, 1912) is one of my favourite films, and I’d really like to explain why. As with Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916), this film looks at the lives of women and their finances through the lens of  consumerism, but the ramifications run deeper than the shop window.

The first reason that I love The New York Hat is that it is an early woman’s picture and I mean that in a fully feminist sense. Today we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, which is basically a test to ascertain whether the women in a film are fully realised characters and not just appendages to the blokes. To pass the Bechdel Test, two named female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something that isn’t a man. Sounds simple. In the field, films that pass this test are rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s really hard to map the Bechdel test back on to silent films in the first place, and so many modern films fail it that you have to assume that older ones will struggle.

However, The New York Hat passes not just the letter but the spirit of the Bechdel test with flying colours, because its narrative is driven entirely by what women want, by what women understand about the world and the values that women have. We have the mother who wants the best for her daughter, the “bits of finery” that she craves, and the daughter who wants to grow up. Then we have some more women, the gossips, who create a conflict for her.

We have two male characters: the father is a no-good man who doesn’t really understand or care about women, and the minister who is a very good man, but also fails to understand women and their world.

The New York Hat (1912)
The New York Hat (1912)
The second reason that I love The New York Hat is that even though it was made in 1912, it is like a glimpse at the future, at Hollywood in the height of the 20s. If you are interested in the history of silent cinema then this film is going to give you a real kick because everyone is in it. If The New York Hat were a pop band it would be a rock supergroup. The scenario for The New York hat was written by Anita Loos, who would go on to have a fabulous Hollywood career, writing films and intertitles and also the hilarious novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The New York Hat is pure Loos – it’s very sharp on the way that women interact with each other and it also contains two of her favourite hobbies: fashion and gossip. When the lead character wears her new hat, the gap between the impression she thinks she is making and the one she really is, is a bitterly dark example of Loos’s vicious humour. It’s also a very poignant moment – and those mixed emotions are part of the magic of this enduring film.

Continue reading “The New York Hat (1912): what women want “

Hippfest returns: the 2016 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

It might be the northern welcome, it could be the gorgeous vintage cinema, but it’s probably the combination of great films and first-class music … the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a highlight of our calendar. This year’s festival runs from 16-21 March 2016 and excitingly, the programme has just dropped!

Exit Smiling (1926)
Exit Smiling (1926)

This means you can start booking your tickets now and believe me, these events often sell out, so act fast.

Mania: History of a Cigarette Factory Worker (1918)
Mania: History of a Cigarette Factory Worker (1918)

The full programme is online here, so you can have a proper browse, but the lineup includes:

  • One of the greatest films of all time, Dovzhenko’s Earth, is the opening night gala, with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and Hazel Morrison.
  • Camera acrobatics in Dupont’s thrilling love-triangle drama Varieté starring Emil Jannings and Lya di Putti, with Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius providing excellent, multilayered accompaniment.
Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)
  • The hilarious Exit Smiling starring Beatrice Lillie (“the funniest woman of our civilisation,” according to Noël Coward) as an aspiring stage star in a shabby touring company, with the ever-brilliant Neil Brand on the piano. That’s the Friday night gala with an introduction by Bryony Dixon – and the perfect excuse to dress up.
  • The unbeatable tearjerker Stella Dallas (the 1925 version), with a new score by Stephen Horne performed by himself and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, and an introduction by your own humble correspondent.
Peter-Pan-1924
Peter Pan (1924)
  • Intergalactic German space documentary Wunder der Schöpfung screens with a wild soundscape score by Herschel 36 (who will be talking about how they wrote their score in another event at the festival) on Saturday night.
  • Late Chinese silent Daybreak, starring Li Lili, with accompaniment by John Sweeney. This screening will be supported by a talk on early Chinese Cinema, which is sure to be illuminating.
Earth (1930)
Earth (1930)
  • My own favourite film star, Pola Negri, in one of her early German films, Mania, with music from kraut-rock band Czerwie.
  • Reel rations – Bryony Dixon’s tour of British propaganda films from the Great War.
  • Herbert Brenon’s charming, inventive Peter Pan, with an acclaimed live score by harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)
  • British train crash drama The Wrecker – screened at Bo’ness train station!
  • Comedy! Courtesy of a Laurel & Hardy triple-bill, as well as Buster Keaton in My Wife’s Relations and Anita Garvin and Marion Byron in A Pair of Tights.

To book for any and all of these events – head to the Hippfest website.

Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema

When I first began to fall in love with the movies, I watched French New Wave double-bills at my local arthouse cinema. I saw the kids in Quatre Cents Coups and Bande à Part dashing across Paris and thought nothing could be more cinematic, more evocative of youth and passion and adventures in the city of light. Nearly two decades later and I, too, am sprinting down Parisian streets, and all in the name of le septième art.

At Toute la Mémoire du Monde, a sprawling festival of restored cinema hosted by the Cinémathèque Française, there are always far more films playing than you could hope to see, at screens across the city. So occasionally you have to forgo that customary pause and sigh of happiness at a film’s heartbreaking conclusion, grab your bag and leg it like Léaud to catch the Métro.

The Outlaw and his Wife (Victor Sjöström, 1918)
The Outlaw and his Wife (Victor Sjöström, 1918)

On my first day at the festival, as Marlene Dietrich ditched her heels and trudged across the desert to prove her devotion to Gary Cooper in the plush new Les Fauvettes rep cinema, I set out on my own speed-march back to the Cinémathèque to catch Fred Astaire getting his shoes shined. Then, of course, as I wandered back to my hotel across the Seine with ‘That’s Entertainment’ ringing in my ears, I had all the more to reflect upon.

1896 Cinématographe-type Lumière

A photo posted by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

I’m trying to explain why this festival offers a rush of blood through the veins, and that I felt ever so slightly light-headed all weekend. Doubtless, the effort of translating French intertitles in my head also gave my brain as much of a workout as my poor old feet. This is a French-language festival – all the sound films are “version originale” with French subs, and for silents, the only intertitles you can guarantee will be French ones. But the good news is that even though I am far from fluent in French, I understood about 80% of  the captions just fine. So if you are wondering whether the language barrier would come between you and this festival, well bonne chance!

The Band Wagon (1953)

It’s difficult not to feel close to the cinema in Paris, the city where the projection of moving images first began. The Cinémathèque, and the other screens I visited, are a long way from the upscale Boulevard des Capucines where the Lumières first unspooled their magic. But catching a programme of French shorts from the 1900s and teens gave me a little historical thrill. Not least when Oscar (Oscar au Bain, Léonce Perret 1913) whisked his ladylove around the capital in a taxi. And even the later films I saw, from The River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) to Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), all owe their existence to those first flickers, it’s true.

Herr Arnes Pengar (1919)
Herr Arnes Penningar, 1919

It’s in the nature of an archive festival to be eclectic, but had I been strictly silent all weekend, it’s a fair bet that I would have seen mostly Swedish films from the teens and early twenties by Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, courtesy of the L’école suédoise strand. I stretched my wings a little further than that, but still made time to see haunting, brilliant films by both directors: Stiller’s Herr Arnes Penningar (1919) as well as Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage, (1921). All three heart-wrenching experiences of the best kind – pitching the viewer into a world that is physically tough and spiritually fraught. Continue reading “Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema”

Bringing back Frances Marion’s lost novel Minnie Flynn

This is a guest post for Silent London by Ben Smith.

When Kevin Brownlow was in LA in the 1960s, interviewing cinema veterans for his unrivalled history of the Hollywood silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, there was one important figure who declined to be interviewed, Frances Marion. Brownlow admits he would have pursued her much more vigorously if he had only known then what he does now. At that time Marion was writing her memoir, Off With Their Heads!

Marion wrote some of the silent era’s biggest hits, among them screenplays for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Early on she established an extremely successful working relationship with Irving Thalberg, and became MGM’s premier screenwriter. She found love with a former Presbyterian Minister, Fred Thomson, and helped build his career as an actor who starred in 24 westerns. Thomson’s fame in 1927 was second only that of Tom Mix, but his stardom was cut short by a contract wrangle with the banker and film financier Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father and a man who both simultaneously swindled and reformed the studios).

Fred Thomson’s death in 1928 – variously recorded as the result of tetanus, gallstone surgery and tuberculous – left Frances Marion a bereft widow and the single parent of two children. Marion, was more than stoic in her refusal to be held back by tragedy and continued to stay at the front of her craft, being the first woman to get a solo screenwriting academy award for The Big House (1930) and another for The Champ (1931).

Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), which was written by Frances Marion

In 1925, the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, Marion published her debut novel Minnie Flynn, the story of an uneducated working class girl who gets a break in the New York movie world before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. Like Gatsby it was a story about new money, unfettered morals and collapsing class boundaries. Unlike Gatsby it wore its debt to melodrama on its sleeve. This unusual book, unique among the quietly burgeoning genre of the Hollywood novel for depicting the New York/New Jersey film industry, has been forgotten by history.

Continue reading “Bringing back Frances Marion’s lost novel Minnie Flynn”

Dreaming schoolgirls to film pioneers: Silent Women at the Kennington Bioscope

The next Kennington Bioscope event is one very close to my heart. On Wednesday 10 February, the Bioscopers will celebrate the achievements of early female film-makers. It’s all in aid of a new book on the subject called Silent Women, featuring contributions from writers including Bryony Dixon, Shelley Stamp and Kevin Brownlow

Inspirational and informative, Silent Women will challenge many people’s ideas about the beginnings of film history. This fascinating book roams widely across the era and the diverse achievements and voices of women in the film industry. These are the stories of pioneers, trailblazers and collaborators – hugely enjoyable to read and vitally important to publish.

Dorothy Arzner calls the shots
Dorothy Arzner calls the shots

One of the most eye-catching chapters in the book is an interview with the wonderful Dorothy Arzner, by Kevin Brownlow. Arzner’s career spanned the silent and sound eras and she hasd a notably close working relationship with Clraabow, so she certainly had some tales to tell. It’s a fascinating read, covering so much ground, but this quote really appealed to me – and I think you will enjoy it too:

I was always known as a dreaming schoolgirl who wanted to do things that were impossible to do. Later it was done, but I was reaching all the time for something unusual. I always had something unusual in my pictures if I could catch it.

Continue reading “Dreaming schoolgirls to film pioneers: Silent Women at the Kennington Bioscope”

Garbo and Gilbert in Love at the Royal Festival Hall

War and Peace is nearly at an end (the raunchy BBC TV adaptation, that is). But don’t despair – Tolstoy up your life with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Hollywood’s hottest ever on-screen couple ™ starred in the sumptuous Anna Karenina adaptation Love (Edmund Goulding, 1927), which is showing at the Royal Festival Hall this month.

Yes, the Royal Festival Hall – with the Philharmonia orchestra (featuring violinist Vadim Repin) playing a brand new score for the film written by Aphrodite Raickopoulou. You may remember that she wrote a very lush, romantic score for a similarly grand screening of Faust a few years back.

The even better news is that tickets for this event now begin at £5 – which is unbeatable value really. This screening is the premiere of the new score and will kick off the 2016 UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature here in London. The film and score will then embark on a world tour, taking in Russia, Japan and South Korea. But you’ll see it here first in London.

LOVE POSTER

Love, a Carmen Zgouras production, screens at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 25 February 2016 at 7.30pm.

 

Victory for Napoléon: cinema and DVD/Blu-ray release at last

Hold on to your three-cornered hats. This may well be the news you have been waiting for since … ooh 1980 or thereabouts. BFI and the Photoplay have announced jointly that Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece, is coming to a screen near you – whether that is a concert hall, cinema, TV or computer. We all have three-screen TVs right?

So you can see Napoléon (1927) with the Philharmonia orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this autumn – and many of us know what a treat that can be – but it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray, to stream on the BFIplayer and theatrically released in cinemas too. And make no mistake, this is the Kevin Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis’s epic score – the definitive five-and-a-half hour version of Napoléon that you really need in your life.

And while the live and cinema screenings will be magical experiences, I am getting a little thrill from the idea of being able to rewind sequences from the film and look at them again, and more closely. The snowball fight, for example! As that occurs at the the beginning of the movie, it could take me some time to get right to the end …

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI

I won’t say too much more now, as we will no doubt be talking about Napoléon all year, which I am hugely looking forward to. But I do want to share some details about the restoration, and the people who made it possible. For example, we have been told that the digital process of restoration has cleaned up some damage in the 35mm print and allowed for greater capacity to recapture the tinting and toning of the original film.

This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.

The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only 4 times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.

Continue reading “Victory for Napoléon: cinema and DVD/Blu-ray release at last”

Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

Charley v Charley

Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?

Chicago-1
Chicago (1927)

The many faces of Phyllis Haver

Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.

The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937)

Cary doffs his hat to Buster

If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.

Continue reading “Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward”

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: let’s all go down the Strand

Is there a more pleasant sounding word than “symposium”? I think not, even if like me you are just old enough to remember the mid-90s punk pop band of the same name.

So it is with a satisfied, cat-like smile, that I share the news of a symposium, coming to these parts in April. it’s the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, if you hadn’t guessed, and it will take place at King’s College London, on 28 and 29 April. Two days? Yes, one day (the 29th, a Friday) will be given over to papers, the afternoon and evening of the previous day will be devoted to screenings of British silent films. Like, ooh I don’t know, The Somme (1927), perhaps? Surely not. Well, you didn’t hear it from me …

Betty Balfour as Tiny Toes in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)
Betty Balfour demonstrates the dress code for the BSFF Symposium. Photograph: British Film Institute

But of course, the BSFF Symposium is a partner to the BSFF itself, so whatever is shown, and discussed, at the event will relate to “the opportunity to re-assess film-making in Britain between 1895 and 1930”, and offer a chance to “consider the achievements and the key debates brought to light by the festival, and to discuss the new directions that future research may take”.

If you are a little highbrow you’ll be especially pleased to know that the likelihood of biscuits is: good to high. If you are really clever, you’ll want to also know how to propose a paper for this delightful symposium. Hold on for the details of the call for papers, courtesy of Dr Lawrence Napper, the supremo of this symposium:

200-word proposals for 15 minute papers are invited on any aspect of film-making and film-going in Britain from 1895-1930. We encourage submissions from early career researchers and independent scholars, and this year especially welcome papers which respond to the themes of the most recent festival, and the current AHRB project on ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound’.

Proposals should be sent to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk  by 29 March 2016. See you there!

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane hoped to sneak out to the BSFF Symposium undetected …

Shaking up the silent canon: is The General the greatest silent film?

I like silent movies even more than I like chocolate. And I do really like chocolate. So when I saw Richard Osman, best known as the co-host of Pointless, holding the World Cup of Chocolate on Twitter a few years back, I pondered whether I could do the same for silent movies. It’s a simple idea – a knockout tournament in which voters pick their favourites, based loosely on the rules of the football World Cup. I don’t have as many followers as Osman (by a very long chalk) and I had no desire to spam people’s feeds with retweets, so I shelved it.

Then Twitter introduced a nifty poll feature – multiple choice questions you could share on the social network, which stayed active for exactly 24 hours. And that meant that this year Osman’s chocolate bar tournament was bigger and more successful than before. So shamelessly, I pilfered his idea. Thanks Richard Osman!

Moroder's Metropolis
Moroder’s Metropolis
I hoped that the followers of Silent London’s Twitter account would get into it, and boy oh boy they did. To start the draw, I arranged the top 32 films from this list on silentera.com into eight groups of four and set the whole thing live. The Silent Era list, it seemed to me, was fairly uncontroversial – almost too uncontroversial – a consensus view of the established classics. And I assumed that the silent movie hipsters you find online would challenge that. But I was wrong, mostly.

In the end, Osman’s Twitter followers voted for the traddest choc bar imaginable – the dependable Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. And the Silent Londoners voted for … well the number one film on the Silent Era list, The General (1926). I have nothing against The General – it’s an unassailable classic – but I was expecting a giant-killing. The General is probably the Dairy Milk of silent cinema. Not only that, but positions number two and three on the SE list, Metropolis (1927) and Sunrise (1927) were right there in the semi-finals – with Murnau’s film making it through to the final with Buster Keaton.

So perhaps you guys aren’t as iconoclastic as I thought (those of you on Twitter that is), or perhaps from this distance the silent film canon is settled. Maybe a century later we can look at these movies and dispassionately rank them, quality sifting surely to the top. The General, and the majesty of Buster Keaton, aside, there were a few surprises in my World Cup results,* which suggest there is still plenty to play for.

Continue reading “Shaking up the silent canon: is The General the greatest silent film?”

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