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Pordenone tips: a beginner’s guide to the Giornate del Cinema Muto

Pordenone
Pordenone: click to see a bigger version – the circular building is the Teatro Verdi, and you can see the cafe Bar Posta and the library (biblioteca) nearby. (Google Maps)

Do you know the way to Pordenone? It’s about 80km north-east of Venice, but that’s not important right now. When I say Pordenone, I mean Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: the world’s most prestigious silent film festival, which takes place in the town every October. This year will be the 34th instalment of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, a veritable institution, which showcases the best (and some of the rest) of silent cinema, accompanied by the world’s leading musicians. It’s eight full day of silent cinema, and a chance to meet the most knowledgeable silent film enthusiasts going.

Never been? I think I understand why. Something about the words “prestigious” and ”institution” can be a little daunting. For years I thought Pordenone was not the place for me – it was for the real experts. I was intimidated too by the website, which is actually phenomenally useful, but a little hard to navigate and very text-heavy in two languages.

But as soon as I arrived for my first Giornate in 2012, I knew I had been a fool to stay away. Pordenone isn’t intimidating at all. And if you love silent cinema, which I know you do, it’s an essential indulgence. You can call that the Pordenone paradox.

So here’s a short guide to planning and enjoying your trip to Pordenone for this year’s festival. If you have any more tips – please share them below:

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The Kennington Bioscope Weekender: a silent film festival for London

The Cheat (1915)
The Cheat (1915)

Well hello there, Elephant & Castle tube station. A few months back I wrote about the many wonders of the Kennington Bioscope – a regular silent screening event held at the Cinema Musesum, south London. Short version: it’s ace.

Now the Kennington Bioscope has gone one better than brightening up our Wednesday evenings. The Kennington Bioscope Weekender will take over the Cinema Museum for two days in the summer – 20 & 21 June – to screen a mouth-watering selection of silent films.

Two things to note straight away – first, the majority of these films will be shown on film, either 35mm or 16mm. The website makes it clear which is which. And second, the films have been chosen and will be introduced by an estimable group of film historians including Kevin Brownlow.

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Hippfest 2015: a barnstorming weekend in Bo’ness

Bye bye Bo'ness #hippfest

A photo posted by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

“If a cinema could give you a hug, this is what it would feel like.” That’s how Bryony Dixon described the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Sight & Sound last year, and as usual, she’s not wrong.

This year I returned for my second trip to the festival, now in its fifth year, and the welcome was warm, the music was fabulous, the films magnificent and the crowds enthusiastic.

It’s a tribute to Ali Strauss, Shona Thomson and all the team behind Hippfest that this small town in Scotland draws silent movie fans from across the country (and the globe) as well as introducing the locals to the delights of EA Dupont, Mikhail Kalatazov and Buster Keaton. I had a stonking time in Bo’ness this year, and would recommend the festival to anyone who loves movies, music and merriment.

Here’s what I took home from Hippfest this year:

A tan. Well, a vitamin D topup at least. I made all the usual wry comments about “sunny Scotland” in the runup to my trip, but Bo’ness was truly bonny this weekend, and my, the Firth of Forth looks stunning in the sunshine.

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)

More recruits for the Colleen Moore fanclub. It was an absolute honour for me to introduce the Friday night gala screening of Synthetic Sin – and I just knew that Ms Moore would charm the spats off the assembled audience. It was a fantastic screening, with raucous laughter threatening to drown out Neil Brand’s spirited accompaniment at times. All the gala shows were sold out – well almost all of the events were – which I think goes to show that people are prepared to take a chance on films, and stars, that they haven’t heard of before. I’m not sure the Hippodrome crowd will forget Colleen in a hurry though.

The fear of God. Well, flippancy aside, I was looking forward hugely to the Thursday night screening of William S Hart western Hell’s Hinges, not least because it would be scored by those groovy cats the Dodge Brothers. But as the band struck up and immediately began crooning “Satan is real” a shiver ran down my spine. The movie provided fire and brimstone, and the Brothers gave it space to breathe and fan those flames. A massively atmospheric screening, and a wonderful opener to my festival. So few people get a chance to see a pre-1920s film on the big screen at all – let alone with so much added cool.

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Book now for the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2015

Lillian Gish in Annie Laurie (1927)
Lillian Gish in Annie Laurie (1927)

The fifth instalment of Scotland’s only silent movie festival announces its programme today – and judging by previous years, you should start snapping up tickets straight away (tickets go on sale today, 10 February 2015, at noon). The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema takes place in Bo’ness, a small town tucked away on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Falkirk, Scotland. Bo’ness has a stunning vintage cinema, the Hippodrome, which has been restored to its 1920s glory, and each year hosts of a celebration of the silent era that is as welcoming as it is wide-ranging.

HippFest celebrates its fifth birthday in style with three major World Premiere Festival Commissions, a pop-up cinema at Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, the chance to discover forgotten stars Colleen Moore and Eric Campbell and get hands-on with a series of workshops and interactive events covering everything from beatboxing to Joan Crawford’s favourite dinner party recipes.

You can find all the information about the festival, and how to book tickets for the events, on the festival website here. You can also follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter. This year’s event runs from 18-22 March 2015 and below I have picked out some highlights from the programme. I have to say I am pretty excited.

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)
  • The Friday night gala screening will be the hilarious Synthetic Sin, starring Colleen Moore. There’s a dress code ladies and gents – flapper glamour! Neil Brand will accompany on piano and some silent movie blogger or other will be introducing the film …
  • “The Film Explainer” Andy Cannon will perform alongside extracts from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with musicians Wendy Weatherby and Frank McLaughlin.

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The British Silent Film Festival returns to Leicester in 2015

Estelle Brody and John Stuart in Hindle Wakes (1927)
A weekend away … Estelle Brody and John Stuart in Hindle Wakes (1927)

According to the website of the Phoenix independent cinema in Leicester, the British Silent Film Festival is moving back northwards this year! The BSFF began in the East Midlands town back in 1998 and has subsequently been based at the Barbican and the Cinema Museum in London, in Cambridge and Nottingham. It will return to the Phoenix in Leicester from 10-13 September 2015, so mark it in your diaries now.

Here’s what the Phoenix has to say about the event.

Formed in 1998, the Festival fulfils an important role – presenting a wealth of treasures from the silent period to audiences who would not otherwise have access to their own film heritage and to the wealth of international silent cinema.

The Festival is curated, organised and presented by Laraine Porter, Bryony Dixon and Neil Brand and a team of UK experts and advisors in this field.

Open to all, the films are presented with live music from the world’s leading professional silent film accompanists (and we hope, local guest musicians) in a variety of entertaining and accessible ways.

Hat-tip to Jenny Stewart for the news – more details to follow as soon as they arrive.

The Woman he Scorned (1929)
Pola Negri in The Woman he Scorned (1929)

Meanwhile, back in the capital, the popular British Silent Film Festival Symposium will take place again this year at King’s College London. The one day event will be held on 24 April, and proposals for presentations should be sent to Lawrence Napper at King’s by 20 March 2015 – email Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk.

Drawing on the success of our previous events, we again seek to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema. This one-day symposium is intended as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930.

As such we would like to invite presentations from people working in all aspects of this field, including cinema in the wider context of theatrical, literary and popular cultures; cinema and World War I; cinema and technology, exhibition, reception and critique.

In the light of a recent AHRC award investigating the transition between silent and sound cinema in the UK (1927-1933), we would be particularly interested to include papers on this topic.

Excitingly, the day will be topped off with a screening of one of my very favourite British silent films: Paul Czinner’s The Woman he Scorned (1929), starring the wonderful Pola Negri.

Read more on the British Silent Film Festival.

London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

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.

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

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.

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Sidewalk Stories review: buried treasure from silent cinema’s recent past

Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as The Artist and The Kid Photographer: Bill Dill
Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as the Artist and the Child. Photographer: Bill Dill

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.

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

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.

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The Tribe (2014): ‘For love and hatred you don’t need translation’

The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

When I checked out the silent films on offer at the London Film Festival this year, I missed The Tribe. Luckily for me, the sharp-eyed Neil Alcock noticed it and pointed me in the right direction. The Tribe/Plemya is a modern film, from Ukraine – the debut feature from Kiev-born director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy – and it was heavily garlanded in the critics’ week at Cannes this year, so it’s definitely worth a look. And it’s definitely of interest to silent cinema fans.

It’s tricky to describe this as a silent film, though, seeing as it has diegetic sound – real diegetic sound, which was all recorded on set, not added in post-production. Nor can we classify it “dialogue-free” … there appears to be plenty of dialogue in The Tribe, but all of the words spoken are in Ukrainian sign language. There are, the trailer proudly proclaims, no subtitles or voiceover to soften that blow. I can’t find figures for how many people in the world speak Ukrainian Sign Language, although this site affirms it is in a healthy state, and two years ago, the Daily Mail reported that inventors in Ukraine had developed a “super glove” to turn UKL into audible speech via a smartphone app. The point is that I suspect none of the Cannes judges were fluent in it, and for them, and most of us, this film will play more like a silent than a talkie. 

The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

It’s a violent, gritty, sexually explicit film: the grim story of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a teenager at a boarding school for deaf-mute children. Said school is rife with gang violence and prostitution, and Sergey clambers his way to the top of the tree before risking it all by falling in love with the wrong girl. There’s little gloss here: the cast are all non-professionals, and UKL speakers, rather than hearing actors. Slaboshpytskiy made a short, and similarly brutal, film set in a boarding school like this one a few years back, a real-time drama called Deafness/Glukhota (2010) in which a police officer grills a deaf-mute teenager in his car – while suffocating him with a plastic bag.

The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

The Tribe plays at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, before coming to London in October, and while we wait for reviews from that festival, this writeup for the TIFF programme by Dimitri Eipides sounds very promising:

Slaboshpytskiy constructs his film with no dialogue and no subtitles, allowing the story to be enlivened by the magnificent pantomimic acting of deaf-mute non-professionals, in a brilliant balance of clarity and ambiguity that puts hearing audiences in a fascinating, active position …

The Tribe peels away the tenderness of its protagonists, communicating in the purest cinematic forms the rawness hidden behind the fragility of youth.

 

I like that phrase abut the hearing audience being put in a “fascinating, active position”. Doesn’t that go straight to the heart of why we love silent cinema? In his review for Variety, Justin Chang expands on this idea, writing that:

Sans dialogue or translation, each interaction effectively becomes a puzzle to be solved, and Slaboshpytskiy is brilliant at using ambiguity to heighten rather than dull the viewer’s perceptions. Even when the meaning of a particular exchange eludes us, a greater sense of narrative comprehension begins to take hold.

(It’s well worth reading Chang’s full review, actually.)

The trailer for The Tribe is hugely intriguing too: I love the strict, square framing and its icily distant long takes. In the foreground of a shot of gang members signing vigorously to each other, one toughnut shoulder-shoves another – a gesture that is as clear as any dialogue. After a screeching hairpin camera-move, a young man’s confusion in the face of a semi-naked and angry young woman in a bedroom reminds us how much of teenage life is a struggle to negotiate a path between our own feelings and those of the people around us. And who could fail to be impressed by the stirring declaration that “for love and hatred you don’t need translation”.

The Tribe plays twice during the London Film Festival. It screens at 8.45pm, 15 October 2014 in NFT1, BFI Southbank and 8.30pm, 17 October 2014 at Screen 5, the Vue West End Cinema. Buy tickets here. 

 

 

Silent films at Scalarama 2014: Sidewalk Stories, Caligari and more screen nationwide

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, a film event producer who organises the Nobody Ordered Wolves screenings. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @nowolvesplease

It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare. 
 
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories.
 
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi DriverSerpico and The French Connection.
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.

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London Film Festival Archive Gala: instant expert

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

Name: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Age: 87 years old. The clue’s in the number in brackets.

Appearance: Shiny and new.

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense – I thought you said it was 87 years old. The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands may be knocking on a bit, but it has been lovingly restored by the BFI and from what we gather, it’s looking pretty damn sharp. Just take a look at these stills.

Great, where can I see this beautiful old thing? At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 October 2014 – it’s being shown at the London Film Festival as the Archive Gala. It will then be released in cinemas nationwide, and simultaneously on the BFIPlayer …

Blimey. And then it will be coming out on a BFI DVD.

Wonderful news, I’ll tell all my friends. Really?

No. I’ve never heard of it. Fair enough. You could have said that in the first place.

I was shy. Don’t worry, the BFI calls it a “virtually unknown film” on its website.

Phew. But you should have heard of the director, Walter Summers.

Rings a bell … He’s a Brit. Or he was, rather. And he was quite prolific, working in both the silent and sound eras. “I didn’t wait for inspiration,” he once said. “I was a workman, I worked on the story until it was finished. I had a time limit you see. We made picture after picture after picture.”

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