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Silent London

A place for people who love silent film

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?

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Second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century recovered: that’s better than a pie in the face

The Battle of the Century (1927)
Stan and Ollie in The Battle of the Century (1927)

A cream-filled pie landing – splash – in the face of an adversary is a popular trope of silent slapstick comedy, along with bumbling Keystone Kops and strategically placed banana peel. And now we hear that one of the classic piefights of all time has been rediscovered – the all-out epic splatterfest that crowns Laurel and Hardy’s silent film The Battle of the Century (1927).

That street brawl, involving a van full of pies and a cast of dozens, is gleeful, gore-free carnage – a classic movie moment in its own right. But until now, the fight, and the film it belongs to, have been truncated. The Battle of the Century was formed of two reels, and much of it has been missing since the silent era. The fight itself, or at least most of it, had been preserved, but the rest was not to be found. The first reel was discovered in the late 1970s, but the second reel, which contains the piefight, has been unseen for decades longer.

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Silents by Claire Crowther review: like watching a silent film for the first time

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This book is the result of a powerful encounter that poet Claire Crowther had with a sublime silent film: The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Th Dreyer. The sadly prosaic truth of the matter is that Crowther’s first glimpse of Falconetti’s tear-streaked face was on YouTube, the result of typing “passion” into the search box, hoping to find an image to use in a poem. After seeing Joan, and being moved by it, Crowther set off on another search, however.

That YouTube moment sent Crowther on a silent spree, watching everything that she could find from cinema’s early years: from The ‘?’ Motorist to The Seashell and the Clergyman. Crowther was fascinated by the artistry of the films, by the mystery surrounding their production, and by the “gagged look” of the films’ stars.

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London on film at BFI Southbank: walking these silent streets

Flowers of London
Flowers of London

Just a quick note to let you know about a season coming up at BFI Southbank, which promises to contain a few silent treasures. London on Film: The Changing Face of London runs from 1 July to 9 October 2015. I’m taken by the idea of a film programme devoted to our favourite city, and hoping that the BFI will make the most of the opportunity to show some great silent dramas, and actuality footage.

Here’s the official blurb:

The BFI present a three month season which celebrates London’s stories through a century of extraordinary film making from archive clips to more modern cinematic adventure. the programme will include over 200 films, from classic features to home movies, shot in London over the last 120 years. For Londoners this season will show the city they know and love, as they may never have known it before.

Already slated are screenings of Anthony Asquith’s Underground and A Night in Victorian and Edwardian London with Bryony Dixon. At the latter event, the BFI’s silent film supremo will introduce archive clips of the capital dated 1881 (!) to 1910. The evening will also include a screening of Joseph Ernst’s captivating short film inspired by Mitchell & Kenyon, Londoners.

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

UPDATE: Over on Facebook, BFI head curator Robin Baker tells us we can expect films including: “Passmore family films from 1902 (part of London Home Movie Night), The Right to Live (1921), London Old and New (1924), Cosmopolitan London (1924), The Fugitive Futurist (1924), The Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel to Mr Solly Gerschcowit (1925) and Piccadilly (1929)”. Plus, the sound version of High Treason (1929)

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Wipeout: running into romance

Wipeout (2014)
Wipeout (2014)

So, yesterday I spent the afternoon in the cinema watching 18 movies. Jealous, right? I was lucky enough to be part of the judging panel for the Walthamstow International Film Festival and we were watching the shortlisted works in order to hand out some prizes. It’s a fun job, and a great local festival that I am chuffed to be a tiny part of. All the entries are around five minutes or less, and while the festival encourages local film-makers, particularly young people, it is open to all, and this year we saw films from as far away as Australia, Argentina and Hong Kong. Our overall winner was the fantastically moving, and intriguing, Speed by Jessica Bishop – a film that interrogates the grieving process by counterpointing family photos and voices. A worthy winner indeed.

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Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.

Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.

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Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

Jane Shore (1915) has been described as the first British epic, and one that rivalled the best productions coming out of Hollywood at the time. A cast of thousands is used to great effect by producer/cinematographer Will Barker (founder of Ealing Studios) in this ambitious retelling of the story of Jane Shore: one of the many mistresses of King Edward IV who described her as one of “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” in his realm.

The BFI has made a stunning new print of the tinted version of Jane Shore (recently discovered in its archives) for its centenary. Composer Laura Rossi has written a new score for the film, which is being performed on a tour of the UK. Here, she answers a few questions about the project, and her writing process.
How did this commission arise and how did you choose the film?

Classic Cinema Club – Ealing wanted to commission me to score a silent film for a live music and film screening at their cinema club. We decided it would be good (as I also live in Ealing) to try and find a silent film made at Ealing Studios. I approached Bryony Dixon at the BFI, who dug out a few films for me to view in a BFI basement room on an old Steenbeck machine.

I was taught how to use the machine and change the reels. It was a very magical day watching reels of footage filmed over a hundred years ago. Jane Shore seemed the perfect fit – a film made at Ealing Studios by the studio founder Will Barker.

For this centenary tour the BFI made a specially restored digital print of the tinted version of the film which looks stunning. We were lucky enough to secure a grant from PRSF Women Make Music fund for the commission and first performance, and an Arts Council grant to help fund the tour.

What do you think is so special about watching a silent film with live music?

Watching a silent film with live music is such a magical experience and can be enjoyed on many levels. The music makes the images come alive and fills the auditorium, giving a four-dimensional experience.

It’s not just about watching the film, but also being transported back to this era. It’s fascinating to see how people acted then, the exaggerated gestures, and the early techniques of making films.

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Two tickets for the price of one: the DW Griffith season at BFI Southbank

DW Griffith on set
DW Griffith on set

Last month we previewed the blockbuster DW Griffith taking place at BFI Southbank in June. This week, tickets went on sale! But before you start flashing your debit cards around, Silent London can save you a little cash, with a two-for-one ticket offer. You could buy twice as many tickets, or even bring a friend along, free, and share the greatness of Griffith at a bargain rate.

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Nitrate Picture Show 2015 review: putting the silver into the silver screen

nitrate picture show

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amran Vance, who runs the London Silent Film Meetup group and is part of the team behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope.

Nitrate. Dangerous, volatile, endangered, nitrate.

Its allure drew film curators, historians and cinephiles from around the world to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, last weekend, for the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show.

Nitrate, as a film base, was first developed in Rochester, by Eastman Kodak in 1889. It is a high-quality, but highly flammable, film stock which produces its own oxygen supply as it burns. A single spark from a torn frame during projection can set off a raging fire. Audience deaths from projection booth fires were not uncommon during the first few decades of cinema and nitrate’s ability to self-combust has caused several studio vault fires, including the tragic 1937 fire in which almost all of the Fox Film Corporation’s silent film holdings were lost.

Nitrate was discontinued in 1951 and strict regulations now govern its storage,transportation and projection. Only a few venues in the world are equipped to project it, including our venue, the Dryden Theatre.

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The Silent London podcast: a visit to the Regent Street Cinema

Regent Street Cinema
Regent Street Cinema – those plush seats, and a glimpse of the booth

A trip to the cinema is not always worthy of a podcast, but the Regent Street Cinema in the West End of London is a little bit special. I first visited this cinema in October 2014, when it was still mid-refurbishment. This week, I was lucky enough to see it in all its splendour, just a whisker ahead of its official opening.

I had a good nose around, and spoke to the artistic director Shira MacLeod as well as Anna McNally from the university archives. Take a look around this picture gallery, and have a listen to the podcast, which explains the unique history of this building, and what we can expect from its forthcoming programme.

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