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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 4

Die Puppe (1919)
Die Puppe (1919)

What is admirable in the clash of young minds is that no one can foresee the spark that sets off an explosion, or predict what kind of explosion it will be. – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Forgive me and my fellow delegates if we are a little dazed, but today an array of high-wattage stars dazzled the Verdi: Clara Bow, Ossi Oswalda and Douglas Fairbanks all took a turn in the spotlight, and didn’t we all know about it? But they were all  playing second fiddle, I am afraid, to one of the festival’s guests of honour.

The real star of the day was Naum Kleiman, erstwhile director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, who was in town to deliver the Jonathan Dennis lecture at the Giornate. He didn’t really do that, though. He spoke a few words, and graciously answered our questions, but instead of a formal lecture we watched a new film that has been made about Kleiman, the Museum, and the frankly appalling state of affairs in Russia today, where the museum has been evicted and its good works all-but sacrificed to the opaque aims of the Ministry of Culture. It was called Cinema: a Public Affair, and it was directed by Tatiana Brandrup, who was also in attendance to answer questions. At an event where we have so much Russian cinema to celebrate, it is beyond distressing to learn that film culture in that country is in such a perilous position. Founded in 1989, the Cinema Museum used to show 20 – 20! – films a day. Important films, films from around the world, films that are now impossible to see in Russia. It was always run on a shoestring – Jean-Luc Godard made a gift to the Museum of a Dolby sound system ahead of a retrospective of his works there. But now, the situation is as absurd as something in one of the Soviet comedies screening at the Giornate. A new building intended to house the Museum has been repurposed as a parking garage, while the Museum’s collections are all in the temporary storage at yes, garages at the Mosfilm studios…

Kleiman is an inspiring man, who spoke in the film movingly about the first film he remembered seeing as a four-year-old child. Before that point he had seen war, he had seen fear and devastation, in fact his own father was missing, but one night at a park near his refugee camp in Teashkent, he saw the cinema for the first time. That screening of Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad was to him a “window on to another reality”. He stood on his bench, and flapped his hands, imagining that he had a magic carpet under his feet. And he has dedicated his life to sharing that magic, that escape, that understanding of a different world, with other people. A member of the Verdi audience asked simply: “How do you find the strength to go on fighting?” “I’m not fighting,” he replied. “I’m just working.”

The Darling of the CSA. Courtesy of the NFPF
The Darling of the CSA. Courtesy of the NFPF

For Kleiman, the conversation that films can spark are almost the point of screening them. “The film begins when it’s over,” he said. And although they were lighthearted in tone, this morning’s programme of shorts illustrated that perfectly. A package of films put together by Laura Horak on the theme of cross-dressing girls on film, these movies, which were mostly comedies, were hugely intriguing, and provided delicious food for thought. The shorts included actresses playing boys, playing dual roles or simply playing characters who dress up as lads, or take on male characteristics. The way that the teens and twenties of the last century approach these ideas is consistently intriguing – so often they flirt close to something really subversive, something to challenge the relentless heterosexuality of so much silent Hollywood cinema, and then retreat, having nibbled their doughnut and kept it too. I enjoyed Anna Q Nilsson as a rebel spy in disguise during the civil war in The Darling of the CSA (1912) (riding sidesaddle even when in drag) and a futuristic “nightmare” of 21st-century gender role reversals called What the World Coming to? (1926), a surprisingly nifty restoration of a 16mm print, in which a kept husband worries that his bigshot wife spends too much time with her “sheik stenographer”. Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 4”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 3


Of what does a revolt consist? Of everything and nothing, a spring slowly released, a fire suddenly breaking out, force operating at random, passing breeze

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

On a gloriously sunny day in northern Italy (and I do mean glorious) there is nothing to be done except to duck into a dark theatre and watch Soviet cinema, right? Right? Well, that’s how we roll here in Pordenone. Today I expected  to be dominated by the screening of Eisenstein’s monumental October (1928), but as ever, the Giornate caught me by surprise. My day began with a simply stunning, and very refreshing Soviet comedy. Just as last year, the Russian Laughter strand is shaping up to be one of my favourites. And it ended with a Japanese film that I feared I wouldn’t get the most out of. Perhaps I didn’t, but I did love it all the same,

Back to Russia. That comedy, Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga (Two Friends, a Model and a Girlfriend, 1928) was a real sparkler: it was gorgeously photographed, with sunlight dappling the river our heroes were pootling along, and brightly funny too. Unlike pure slapstick affairs, the comedy here was largely contained in the composition rather than the action – it was, if this is a thing, pictorially funny. Like a newspaper cartoon. Our heroes, the two friends, are seemingly daft soap factory workers who invent a machine, a contraption really, for making packing crates. They think it will increase efficiency at the factory (a noble Soviet aim, for sure) but their villainous overseer disagrees – they’re paid to work, not invent. In the end, the pals, a girl who has run away from her fiancee and this crazy “model” must travel to the big city by river to prove its worth. Endless fun, visually inventive at every turn, and so gentle it undercuts all one’s preconceptions of Soviet bombast at once. Please take any chance you get to see this one.

October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna
October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna

But if you ordered bombast, today delivered. A two-hour-plus silent movie is a weighty proposition to be honest, but October, with its “catalogue of inventions” is so dazzling, energetic, ferocious and breathtakingly geometric that it feels more like a weekend than a month. Eisenstein’s document of the Russian revolution screened in the Canon Revisited strand, and it is certainly a film that repays the revisiting. Today we were especially lucky to have Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the orchestra pit – performing a stirring score that was no doubt an exhausting feat. I am continually dumbfounded to find that some people are immune to this rousing strain of cinema. These Soviet classics were an early staging post on my route into exploring the silents. I came to them well before the Hollywood films, and they constantly define for me what silent cinema can achieve, which is to say what cinema in total can achieve. So there. The raising of the bridge sequence in October never fails to stop me in my tracks – from the naked viciousness of the bourgeoisie to the white horse martyred several feet above the Neva. And that poor young girl’s trailing hair … As the film continues there is far more to savour than I could even hint at here. The Women’s Death Battalion could furnish several blogposts of political-sexual analysis by themselves. By the time it was over I was ready to storm the palace of silent cinema and loot for more such treasures.

A Fool and his Money (1912) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
A Fool and his Money (1912) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 3”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 2

When the Clouds Roll By. Lobster Films, Paris
When the Clouds Roll By. Lobster Films, Paris

And in the meantime we must scrutinize the things that have vanished, needing to know if only to avoid them. Counterfeits of the past, under new names, may easily be mistaken for the future. The past, that ghostly traveller, is liable to forge his papers – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

You wait weeks for one Douglas Fairbanks picture and on a rainy Sunday in Pordenone you get two! I am beginning to suspect I may have a wee crush on Mr Fairbanks Sr, so help me. Don’t tell me we can’t be together.

Forget that nonsense for a minute, the wet Sunday morning began with another fine selection of City Symphonies. Much to admire in all of them, but my favourite was the lyrical De Steeg/The Alley (1932), a portrait of a street in Rotterdam, and the people who live there, shot so nimbly and sensitively I wanted to walk down that road and meet those people straight away. Second, for me, was a similar piece, Pierement (Barrel Organ, 1931), shot in a working-class district of Amsterdam. As we follow the progress of the organ down the road, we meet new faces, new places and the day winds on, with the passage of time marked as the barrel organ cards concertina into their neat stack at the back of cart. A simple idea, beautifully executed.

Softened up, we settled into the Woody Allen fever dream that is When the Clouds Roll By (1919), the first item in the much anticipated Victor Fleming retrospective. Dancing vegetables! Douglas Fairbanks walking on the ceiling! Fairbanks is astonishing in this one: vibrant and funny and handsome and romantic and mad all at once – and the film is shot with humour and ingenuity and bags of style. Plus, I cared about all the characters, despite the ludicrous story – the superstitious mania shared by Fairbanks and his lady-love was cute and quirky rather then maddening as it would be in real life. It is a real cutie this picture – come for the famous dream sequence and stay for Dougie’s magnetic personality.

THE RANCHMAN’S VENGEANCE (US 1911). Collection EYE Filmmuseum
THE RANCHMAN’S VENGEANCE (US 1911). Collection EYE Filmmuseum

After Fairbanks, only the most masculine of movies could satisfy the Verdi audience, so a grab-bag of six westerns scratched the itch perfectly. These were a little rough and ready at times (just how we like em, eh?) but this was no endurance feat. These early westerns may have the slenderest of plots, are sometimes crudely performed and oddly staged, but they have a dynamism that’s hard to resist. And there were touches in each film (a desperate proposal on a playing card, for example) that made them irresitibly human. This programme flew by. It was like being the despatch rider in Saved by the Pony Express (1909) leaping on to a new horse as soon as one tired out. That would make Allan Dwan’s The Poisoned Flume, the wild stallion of the bunch … which is a fair shout. As Richard Abel points out in the Giornate catalogue, the irrigation of California would prove contentious on film right up to Chinatown and this is a captivating revenge drama, where the devil really was in the details. Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 2”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien
Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien

The town was like a loaded gun, needing only a spark to set it off – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“It’s the last time I shall say it, so I shall say it,” began David Robinson, introducing what is surely not his final Giornate, but the last over which he will preside as artistic director. The Robinson era will close with the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, which looks on paper at least as if it will be a very special festival, with a jewel-studded programme. And he hands the baton to the surest of hands: the marvellous Jay Weissberg of Variety, who joined him on stage tonight by way of introduction, and performed as Robinson’s personal interpreter too. We said another goodbye on Saturday evening  – this festival will be dedicated to the memory of one of its staunchest supporters, Jean Darling, who passed away in early September. A snippet of her singing Always at a previous festival began our gala evening, as Robinson took to the stage to say… what was it? Ah yes. “Welcome home!”

The two directors… the present and the future #GCM34 #PordenoneSilent #SilentFilm #Pordenone

A photo posted by @pordenonesilent on

But before we get to the gala, and the speeches and the changing of the guard, we have a full afternoon of films to catch up on. Fasten your seatbelts, fellow Pordenauts*, we’re going on a journey.

Our world tour began with trip to Berlin – this was not classic Symphony of a City territory mind, but a visit to Gypsy Berlin – from the camp to the racetrack to the streets. Terrifying to think what lay in store for the people featured in this film, Grossstadt-Zigeuner (1932), but it was a true gem, directed by the Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with great verve and edited with playful intricacy. Despite its many stylistic flourishes, it’s a warm, humane portrait, and served as an excellent introduction to the main feature in this afternoon’s bill from the Other City Symphonies strand. The longer film was a document of Chicago, made by a German film-maker Heinrich Hauser in 1931. Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht uber Chicago (A World City in its Teens. A Report of Chicago) carried itself at an unexpectedly relaxed pace, puttering up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer for the longest time before reaching the metropolis, and even then, we moved slowly, until the film suddenly discovered the residents of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the poverty caused by the Great Depression, etched in the faces of men being turned away from labour exchanges. When workers unloading banana boats at the dock empty the rotten fruit into the river, another group of men in row boats appear to scoop them out of the water. Elsewhere in the city, too, on the south side in the streets largely populated by African Americans, on the lake beach bursting with sun worshippers, Chicago was defined by its people, not its towering skyscrapers. Hats off too to Philip Carli, for fantastic piano accompaniment for both films.

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1”

Accidentally Preserved Vol 3 review: a lost world of laughter

Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model
Wanted: A Nurse, Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model

If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.

You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.

Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model
The Whirlwind, Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model

First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence. 

The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast. 

Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.

Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model
No Vacancies, Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model

So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.

I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.

Continue reading “Accidentally Preserved Vol 3 review: a lost world of laughter”

The Charlie Chaplin Archives review: a heavyweight addition to your collection

The Charlie Chaplin Archives
The Charlie Chaplin Archives

When Taschen sent me a copy of its latest book, I was overwhelmed. And so was the courier who brought it to my desk at work. Blimey, it’s big. Open the box, and you’ll discover that this is a very beautiful volume too. The Charlie Chaplin Archives is a stunning new book, which pays tribute to south London’s favourite son across 560 gorgeous pages crammed with quotes, archive imagery, classic film stills and snippets of Chaplinalia. It takes the reader step-by-step through all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature films and many of his shorter works. Along the way, you’ll find out how Chaplin made his movies, and a little bit more about Hollywood’s greatest ever rags-to-riches tale. As the foreword by editor Paul Duncan explains, Chaplin was famously secretive about the creative process, so these glimpses behind the camera are fascinating – especially when we learn how much was reworked and invented in the studio, rather than at the script stage. This is an oral history too: as much as possible, the story is told by Chaplin and his collaborators, from archive interviews and memoirs.

I wanted to do proper justice to a book that is so lavish and thorough and … majestic in scope. So I decided that the best way to review The Charlie Chaplin Archives was not with words, but with pictures.

Continue reading “The Charlie Chaplin Archives review: a heavyweight addition to your collection”

The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?

Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second path. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …

What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.

It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.

Continue reading “The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer”

Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

As of next week, Man With a Movie Camera could be coming to a big screen, or a Blu-ray machine, near you. And there’s always a good reason to watch Man With a Movie Camera again. First, because it’s such a stunning film: exhilarating, avant-garde and witty. And second, because each time you do, you’ll grapple with the questions it throws at you again – and just possibly come up with different conclusions. This magnificent movie may be a film studies set text, but it defies attempts at explanation, and in fact, it has a unique way of wriggling out of any category you might try to impose on it. Recently crowned top documentary of all time, it is also an experimental art film. It appears to be a City Symphony but it is a fraudulent one – filmed in three cities and naming none of them. Its absurdities of composition and action make the audience think of comedy, even cartoons and its trick cuts and frame manipulation are closer to animation than conventional film-making.

If I could rechristen this film as its director did himself when he went from plain David Kaufman to the far more evocative Dziga Vertov, I would call it Woman with a Moviola. The new name would be in honour of Yelizaveta Svilova, who edited the film with Vertov, and whom we see stitching together frames midway through the film. The man of the title clambers, and tilts and gets where the action is, that’s for sure, as any camera operator should do. But the magic of this film is in its elaborate construction, its celebration of those arts that are purely cinematic – not offcuts from other media. As Roger Ebert said when he reviewed the film in 2009: “It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it cinema.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Svilova is also arguably the least well-known of the “council of three” comprising herself, her husband Vertov and his brother-cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. And it seems appropriate to the film’s perversities to proclaim her the heroine: at this point, perhaps, the only way to look at Vertov’s film is sideways.

Continue reading “Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control”

Five films I saw at the 1st Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

Silent film marathon #kenningtonbioscope

A photo posted by Katie Graham (@katiegra) on

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.

Continue reading “Five films I saw at the 1st Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend”

On Yer Bike: a History of Cycling on Film DVD review: rattling wheels and retro charm

Lady Cyclists (1899)
Lady Cyclists (1899)

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 a 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; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?

Continue reading “On Yer Bike: a History of Cycling on Film DVD review: rattling wheels and retro charm”

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