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Ten lost silent films

March 24, 2014

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blogThe Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
The Drag Net (1928)

The Drag Net (1928)

1) The Drag Net (1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
FW Murnau

FW Murnau

2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Dracula survived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf (The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
The Patriot (1928)

The Patriot (1928)

3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot (1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman (1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle

5) The Mountain Eagle (1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?
Read more…
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British Silent Film Festival: 2014 style

March 23, 2014
Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)

Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)

Just like last year, the British Silent Film Festival hits London town, but not in its traditional form. Very much as was the the case last year, actually, the festival proceeds in a slightly cut-down version, comprising a symposium at Kings College London on Friday 2 May 2014 and a full day of screenings at the Cinema Museum on the next day.

There’s a loose theme to those screenings at the Cinema Museum – runaway women or some such. I like. More to point: Betty Balfour fans – fill your boots. And if you want to submit a proposal for a paper to the symposium, you have until 31 March – so hurry up, clever clogses.

Here are the full details for each day:

The British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2014 will take place on 2nd May 2014 at King’s College, London.

Following the success of last year’s symposium, this one-day event again seeks to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema, and operate as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Possible areas may include but will not be confined to: Cinema in the context of wider theatrical, literary and popular culture; Empire and cinema; Cinema and the First World War.

An early evening screening of The Wonderful Story (Graham Cutts, 1922) will be included in the day’s events.

Proposals (around 200 words in length) are invited for 20 minute papers on any aspect of new research into film-making and cinema-going in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Please submit them to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk by 31st March.

Read more on Facebook & register for the symposium here

Betty Balfour

Betty Balfour

Put-upon ladies take on the world in this programme of rarely seen silents from the BFI National Archive.

A double bill from talented Hungarian director Geza von Bolvary, stars Britain’s favourite actress Betty Balfour as the stand-in princess in The Vagabond Queen (1929) and besotted bottle-washer in Bright Eyes (1929). Also yearning to break free, an oppressed wife hangs her hopes on a typewriter in J.M. Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a programme of shorts continues the theme.

PROGRAMME

  • 10.00-11.30 The Twelve Pound Look
  • 11.30-12.00 Break
  • 12.00-13.30 The Vagabond Queen
  • 13.30-14.30 Lunch
  • 14.30-16.00 Shorts programme
  • 16.30-18.00 Champagner/Bright Eyes

Doors open at 09.00 for a 10.00 start.

Refreshments will be available in our licensed café/bar.

TICKETS & PRICING

£25 for the full day, £15 for a half day, £8 for one session. Sorry, no concessions.

Advance tickets may be purchased from WeGotTickets, or direct from the Museum by calling 020 7840 2200 in office hours.

UPDATE: tickets on sale now

Read more on the Cinema Museum website

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2014: reporting back

March 16, 2014


Silent London podcast: Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2014

I’ve just returned from the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk. It’s a fantastic event – I really enjoyed myself and only wish I could stay longer. To give you a flavour of the weekend, if you missed out this time, here’s a mini-podcast and a selection of social media updates too. Surely there is no cooler hashtag for a #silentfilm event than #hippfest?

Hats off to Alison Strauss and her team and Falkirk Community Trust to – Hippfest is a triumph.

UPDATE: Here’s my Hippfest report for the Guardian film blog
Read more…

Surrealism, hands and sexuality in Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930)

March 14, 2014
Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. Sabina has a PhD in French studies from the University of Birmingham and is a regular contributor to Zero magazine. Her PhD thesis was on Women Surrealists: sexuality, fetish, femininity and female surrealism – and you can read it in full here. This article is an edited extract from her thesis, focusing on the early cinema of Luis Buñuel.

Sabina Stent

Sabina Stent

There are particular images that were central to the Surrealist movement. The human hand, for example, became a frequent Surrealist motif and can be seen in the movement’s films, paintings and photography. Why were these motifs so important to Surrealism and why do we continue to discuss them as part of the movement’s history? To understand why we must look to the Surrealist films of the 1920s, specifically Un chien andalou (Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, 1928) and L’Age d’Or (Buñuel, 1930) and how key scenes emphasised the reoccurring themes that were so central to this movement.

The repetition of hands in Un chien andalou is, to put it simply, a symbol of fetish: what hands can do and how they can generate both intense pleasure and intolerable pain. Williams has commented that ‘the function of the fetish arises from the fear of castration’ and can only be preserved through making the object in question a symbol of fetish.[1] The repetition of wounded and severed hands in the film represents castration fear, and more specifically, a disembodied phallus. This is emphasised when we realise that all the hands, whether injured or exuding ants, are male.
Read more…

Competition: win tickets to see Tanya Tagaq in concert with Nanook of the North at the Southbank Centre

March 14, 2014
Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North (1922)

One of the most enduring, and controversial, of silent films is to screen at the Southbank Centre in April, with a very special soundtrack. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North presented what seemed to audiences in 1922 to be an authentic “Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic” – and they flocked to cinemas to see it. Nowadays we know that several of the scenes were staged, and that Nanook’s igloo was a fake – but the film remains a favourite. A docudrama rather than a documentary, made before the boundaries before those two genres were made distinct, Nanook of the North is a trailblazing film and one that is loved almost as much for the idiosyncrasies of its production as for the events on screen.

What’s particularly special about this screening is the music will be provided by a woman from the Canadian Arctic – not so far from the territory shown on screen in Nanook. Tanya Tagaq is an award-winning throat singer, who will accompany the film solo. Throat singing is traditional to the Inuit region but is usually performed by women in duets – a sort of sing-off to see which vocalist can last longest. You might remember the throat singing score for Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia that was performed by Yat-Kha at the BFI Southbank a few years back.

Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, presents to UK audiences for the first time her live accompaniment to Robert J Flaherty’s classic 1922 silent docu-drama – Nanook of the North. To celebrate this rare screening, we are offering you the chance to win two tickets to see the film and Tanya Tagaq’s mesmerising accompaniment at Southbank Centre on Friday 4 April. To be in with the chance of winning, all you need to do is email …

To win a pair of tickets to see Nanook of the North with Tanya Tagaq at the Southbank Centre, email the answer to this simple question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with Nanook in the subject header by noon on Friday 28 March 2014.

  • Nanook was not really called Nanook. What was his real name?

Good luck!

 

Terms and Conditions
- To enter the competition entrants must email…
- The competition closes at 12.30pm on 28/03/14 and entries sent after that time will not be considered.
The prize will be awarded to 1 winner and will consist of 2 tickets to see Tanya Tagaq in concert with Nanook of the NorthThe winner will be picked at random and notified shortly afterwards.
- The prize are as stated in the competition text, are not transferable to another individual and no cash or other alternatives will be offered.
- Prizes are subject to availability and the prize suppliers’ terms and conditions.

It Girl by Jessica Martin – comic review

March 9, 2014

Clara Bow never had a role quite as good as Clara Bow. This mini comic is a tribute to the beauty and talent of the famous flapper, but also a testament to her tragic life and truncated career. The author, Jessica Martin, is an actress herself, best known for her work on Spitting Image and Doctor Who, so it follows that one of the strongest panels here dwells on the mechanics of screen performance. It’s a triptych of  Bow’s eyes demonstrating the three stages of “it”: lovesick, passionate and innocent. But by and large, It Girl, which was inspired by a TV documentary on Bow, is concerned with the drama off-set: sex, drugs and mental instability.

Black-and-white panels flash back and forth across Bow’s life, looping in her childhood in Brooklyn, her Hollywood glory and her secluded decline. The gutsy rags-to-riches story is suited to the punchy graphic format. Bow’s beauty on screen was manifested not just in her slinky figure and doe eyes but her restless, vivacious movement and the comic-book style expresses this quality far better than a straight portrait or photograph. Bow’s appeal was famously elusive – the famous “It” of the comic’s title – if this graphic novelette leaves the reader craving the real thing that is nothing to be ashamed about.

It Girl plunges the reader straight into Bow’s psychological traumas, opening with a violent nightmare and a suicide attempt, then tumbling fast into a flashback to her childhood hardships. The pace never lets up, and across these 12 pages there is enough incident and emotional pain to flesh out a novel – or indeed a lifetime. It’s a whistlestop tour through a notoriously salacious biography, and as such it’s an experience that is as bewildering as it is bewitching.

Martin’s affection for her subject is tangible, though, and this is an invigorating introduction to Clara Bow. After this taster, it would be a hard heart that didn’t immediately want to reach for a DVD of It or Mantrap.

It Girl can be purchased at officialjessicamartin.com for £3.50 plus postage and packing.

10 haunting silent films

February 24, 2014

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Stephen Horne, silent film musician and composer. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Looking at some of the dictionary definitions of the word “haunting”, it strikes me that they are applicable to silent films in general.  After all what could be more poignant, evocative or difficult to forget than watching long passed-away performers, their mute emotions given voice by music? The following films have extra elements that have made them lodge in my memory like nagging melodies. Usually there is something about them that is unexpected, unresolved or ambiguous. They often feel as though they end on an ellipsis, a cinematic ” … “

These are all films that I have accompanied at some point, which is probably a big reason for their place in my heart. As I’m sure every silent film musician can testify, when a live accompaniment is going well, it can sometimes feel as if you are channeling the film in a way that can be positively uncanny.  One warning. It’s in the nature of this subject that often what lingers most in the mind is the denouement. Therefore, what follows could potentially be regarded as an extended spoiler. Please approach with caution!

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

While The Battle of the Somme is much better known, the final images of its “sequel” remain more firmly in my mind.  Seen in spectral silhouette, soldiers prepare “to continue the great fight for freedom”, as the intertitle puts it.  Of course, what they are also heading towards is further slaughter.  The original official score, a cue sheet medley rediscovered by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, calls for this finale to be accompanied by Land of Hope and Glory.  Seldom has a musical suggestion seemed, at least to a modern sensibility, more heartbreakingly wrong. Which somehow makes it right.

J'Accuse (1919)

J’Accuse (1919)

J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)

Gance’s first world war classic is full of images that scarify the memory.  The March of the Dead is the most famous example: is it to be interpreted literally, allegorically or as a mass hallucination? The knowledge that Gance used real soldiers on leave from the front as actors makes the viewing experience all the more impactful: we are watching the cinematic portrayal of a phantom army, played by people who were soon to become phantoms themselves.

However, the moment that always slays me is a quiet one in the scene that immediately follows. Jean, now completely mad, re-enters his old home, looks around … and calls out his own name. He has lost everything, including himself.

The Woman From Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)

The Woman From Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)

The Woman from Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)

In 1996 the BFI programmed a season of films to coincide with the publication of Gilbert Adair’s book Flickers.  Marking the centenary of cinema, this often-whimsical tome wove brief essays around a single still from one film of every one of those hundred years. Gilbert explained in his introduction to the screening of this little-known film that he had never actually seen it. All he knew was the still image included in his book, but it was one that had haunted him: a woman standing alone, perhaps lost, on a path in the middle of nowhere.  He had always wondered about the backstory that had led her to this point and was almost scared to watch the film, in case the reality disappointed him. Truthfully I don’t remember the film in detail, but now the same image lingers in my mind. For me the woman from nowhere is still standing on that road, lost for ever.

Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)

Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)

Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)

One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, despite the perfectly rendered happy ending. What lingers is the impression of a child’s struggle to comprehend bereavement, uncannily conveyed in Jean Forest’s dark eyes. The moment when the boy sees his father crying for the first time is very prescient of the ending of The Bicycle Thieves.

Stella Dallas (1925)

Stella Dallas (1925)

Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925)

Where does Stella go, after she walks away from the window?  Something in her expression indicates that she has come untethered and I always imagine that she eventually drifts into homelessness. Sometimes if I see an elderly homeless woman, having a conversation with an unseen third party, I think: “Stella – talking to her daughter … “

Exit Smiling (1926)

Exit Smiling (1926)

Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926)

Is it possible for a comedy to be haunting? The film is delightfully funny, but it is the heartbroken expression on Beatrice Lillie’s face at the bittersweet climax that seems to resonate longer. Her character has been courageous and loveable and she deserved better. It’s also a surprising and brave way for a comedy to end.

Jenseits der Strasse (1929)

Jenseits der Strasse (1929)

Jenseits Der Strasse (Leo Mittler, 1929)

I saw this at the Bonner Sommerkino many years ago. The expression on the face of Lissy Arna’s streetwalker in the last scene burned itself into my memory.  The moment itself is partially comic, as the gross belly of her next client protrudes centre-frame. However as she tries to smile at him, her vacant eyes belie the fact that her personal window of happiness has definitively slammed shut.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)

What I love most about Asquith’s masterpiece is the ambiguity of its final act. Few other silent films seem to generate so much discussion of character motivation. Is Sally’s forgiveness of Joe purely born of compassion or does she perhaps regret her life choices? When he asks “are you happy?” she seems to pause a beat too long, before turning her head away from him and answering “very”.

Order A Cottage on Dartmoor on DVD with Stephen Horne’s score from Movie Mail

Prix de Beauté (1930)

Prix de Beauté (1930)

Prix de Beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930)

The final scene, which transcends an often wonderful but undeniably uneven film, is poignant in many ways.  Louise Brooks’ character is watching herself in a screen test – one that will determine her future career in talking films – when she is shot dead by her ex-lover.  While silent film Louise dies in the foreground, sound film Louise continues to sing on, framed in the screen behind her. It seems like a metaphor for both Brooks’ own soon-to-be curtailed career and the imminent death of silent films.

The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (Otto Kylmälä, 2011)

A slight indulgence, partly as this is a 21st-century silent, but also because I provided the music. However, I make no apology, as Otto Kylmälä’s seven-minute jewel of a short ends with a truly haunting moment that I won’t spoil, as it’s not generally available to watch at the moment. But you’ll know it when you see it. Come to think of it, the moment is accompanied by a rather haunting melody… …

By Stephen Horne

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