The Silent London calendar
For Jacques Tati, diegetic sound is about as useful as headlights on a broom. He’d rather not illuminate anything with such a crude tool. Playtime, his masterpiece, is a work of brow-furrowing complexity in its design and structure, but a model of narrative clarity.
Amid the Babel of un-synched language spouted by its multiple characters, Tati tells us a story of a man, M Hulot, trying to negotiate a city, Paris, that doesn’t exist. Only Hulot (Tati, of course), and an American tourist, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) seem to notice that the steel and glass skyscrapers of the soaring sixties have hidden the real city, obscuring its landmarks and dividing its citizens. Tati goes to a business meeting, is diverted to a furniture show, meets an old friend who invites him home for a drink, attends the opening of a restaurant, meets a girl and loses her, all in the space of 24-odd hours.
Each twist in Hulot’s meander is a prompted by a mistake or misapprehension. His attempt to refuse to enter the restaurant shatters the door and he stumbles inside unwillingly. If I tried to explain to you why a German door salesman then ushers him further into the dining room I would expend many, many words to explain a labyrinthine incident earlier in the film that is played out in at least three languages, none of which needed subtitles at all.
Trust me, it was a wonderful moment. I felt that door salesman’s anger, his hostility, his sarcasm, his deep shame and his ingratiating warmth so deeply, because they were so strongly expressed, not because I translated “Dumbkopf!” in my head. The only skills you need to understand this film are patience and observation, which transparently makes my German GCSE barely worth the paper it is written on.
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.
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.
When you become a silent movie blogger no one tells you that you will need a hard hat. Nor that you will occasionally be handed a free glass of fizz. But those of those things happened on Wednesday afternoon when I travelled “up west” to the University of Westminster to see the venue where the first public motion picture screening in the UK took place.
On 21 February, 1896, the Lumière Brothers demonstrated their cinematograph to a paying public (admission: one shilling) in the theatre of the Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London. The theatre had been used for lots of things before the Lumières arrived, including very popular magic lantern shows. Subsequently, it was made into a bona fide cinema, in use until 1980. And the Polytechnic changed too, eventually becoming the University of Westminster, but notably in 1970, as the Polytechnic of Central London, it was one of the first institutions to offer an undergraduate degree in Film Studies.
As for the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph, that is another story …
Now, the University of Westminster is restoring the theatre to some of its former glories: reinstating and repairing the 1926 art deco cinema fittings, and the organ, which was a later addition. There will also be a cafe-bar in the foyer, the capacity to project DCPs as well as film (should that be the other way around?) and all manner of schools programmes and tie-ins with neighbouring bodies.
Unsilent Movies has been touring silent film and live music events for a couple of years now. This month, they are bringing their score for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) to venues across the UK. Percussionist Ric Elsworth tells you a little more about the project in this short video:
And here are those tour dates:
26th October – Leicester Phoenix Cinema
28th October – Shrewsbury Theatre Severn
29th October – Newcastle Tyneside Cinema
30th October – Oxford Ultimate Picture Palace
31st October – London St. James Studio
By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …
Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.
I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …
You know it’s Pordenone when you’re still having a conversation about melodrama, cliché and the difference between parody and sendup as you turn the key in the lock of your door at midnight. Or maybe that’s just me and the people I choose to hang out with. Still, I think it’s telling, because the penultimate day of the Giornate had plenty for us to chew on, get lost in and provoke the temper too.
But first, let me lay the scene: a medium-sized town in northern Italy, it’s Friday, spitting with rain. Interior: a bell rings, it’s nine am in the auditorium and it is clear that quite a few people in attendance have that Friday feeling. You know, the one was manifests itself in a splitting headache and grey circles under the eyes? But if there is one thing that we have learned this week, it is that Yakov Pratazanov is worth getting out of bed for.
And Chiny I Liudi (Ranks and People, 1929), a portmanteau film comprising adaptations of three Chekhov short stories, was another great “serious comedy”, leading me to kick myself that I missed last night’s Don Diego I Pelageya (1928). Each story deals with the problems of living in a rigorously stratified society: a clerk fears he has offended a high-up and apologises to death; an officer is caught between asserting his authority and sycophancy to a general; a poor woman marries a heartless rich man, but has her head turned when she experiences high society. It was all beautifully done, as witty as it was tenderly heartbreaking. A false perspective frame of the clerk approaching his senior’s desk, and a high-angled shot pretty Anna admiring herself in her finery were particularly memorable. I’m more keen than ever to see tomorrow morning’s sound-era Pratazanov. Another 9am Soviet film, just how I like it.
Russian cinema, but not as we know it, before the midday break without a curio from Germany: Panzerkreuzer Potemkin (1930). This is the “talkie” adaptation of Eisenstein’s classic, of course, featuring the Meisel score (in his own arrangement) and a lot of dubbed dialogue. All the intertitles apart from act breaks have been removed from the body of the film and historical explanations tacked on either end, read out in a thumping German voiceover. So it runs shorter than the original, but for me slightly less smoothly, which I freely admit may simply be due to my familiarity with the rhythms of the silent original. It seems strange to hear the men mutter their complaints rather than seeming to rise instinctively to a collective understanding of their circumstances. And because the film was conceived without so much dialogue, a lot of what we hear in this version is simply redundant. There’s an interesting, unintentional effect whenever dialogue runs over a montage cut, actually, as when an officer shakes a sailor awake or another sailor throws that fateful plate. But anyway, it would be very hard to kill the majesty of this movie – the images speak so eloquently that even if Stephen Horne were to reprise his kazoo routine from yesterday, the audience would still be moved. And of course, for a native German speaker, this may be the Potemkin they have always imagined. See what you think (please excuse the “Verdi tidemark”):
Today was a tale of two Fairbankses, both of them Douglas Sr, and of two Barrymores, both of them John, whom I think we can all agree was a bit of a beloved rogue. In the film of the same title, which came first today, he plays a gadabout poet in a 15th-century Paris so smothered in snow that it looks like a Christmas card. And this is Barrymore a la Fairbanks, just to confuse you, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with a goblet of wine in his hand and a jaunty feather in his cap. You just know that he is going to save France (despite the best efforts of feeble-minded King Louis XI, played creepily by Conrad Veidt with a finger up his nose), win the heart of a fair lady (Marceline Day as a poetry-loving aristo), complete some audacious stunts and compose lots of jaunty (terrible) verse on the spot. There is also a completely gratuitous loincloth scene, for the keener Barrymore fans among us. The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927) is total bunkum, but much more fun than, say When a Man Loves. The only way to enjoy this sort of thing is to commit totally to it, and we were helped along by sparkling accompaniment from not one musician but four: a harmonious grouping of Donald Sosin, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Frank Bockius and Romano Todesco.
But John won’t win my heart that way: I crave romance, and splendour, and something beautiful to soothe my fevered brow. Beau Brummel (Harry Beaumont, 1924) will do the trick nicely thank you. It’s gentler, and more tender than the other JB films we’ve seen this week, even if equally as preposterous. Barrymore is the foppish captain deemed too lowly to marry his lady-love (an excellent, if teenaged, Mary Astor), who therefore plots to take obscure revenge on “society” by insinuating himself into the Prince Regent’s inner circle and fighting the system from within, yeah. But dear me, he does it in style. Skinny britches, umpteen rows of frogging, diamond buttons on his frock coat and a powdered wig – and still all you can concentrate on are those flashing eyes and his wicked comic timing. Preening in front of the mirror, practising his poses, or repeating the same lines to another pretty woman until he almost believes them himself … ah he’s a belov-able rogue here too all right. And in the end, it’s very touching, if both overdone and overlong. Stephen Horne was there for the duration (the Giornate showed the fullest print possible, of course), with a light touch on piano, flute and accordion bringing out the best of the comedy and plucking on our collective heartstrings. Good for the soul.
Douglas Fairbanks is just as reliable a star as JB, if a simpler proposition all round. We were lucky enough to see The Good Bad Man (Allan Dwan, 1916) today, a western that went about its business as swift and straight as an arrow. Fairbanks is a Robin Hood cowboy, stealing from the rich-ish and giving to illegitimate children. Is there a dark secret in his past? Will he discover it, have his vengeance and live to make eyes at Bessie Love another day? I thought he just might – but was I right, kids? Kudos to London-based musician David Gray who accompanied the movie with verve and accuracy – he has been partaking in the Giornate’s musical masterclasses all week and this show marked his graduation.
Our second sighting of Dougie was far more epic. The evening show brought another eye-popping collection of two-strip Technicolor treats, including a bizarre set of out-takes from The Gaucho (1927): a reel of attempts to shoot Mary Pickford as a vision of the Virgin Mary on a rockface. Shimmering loveliness its very self until an assistant hovers into view with a clapperboard. Fairbanks showed his face, and his biceps for the main feature, the unstoppable force that is The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926): as gruesome as it is gorgeous and grand, this is a hard film to take against. If only because that dagger-down-the-main-sail makes you catch your breath each time. And in case you were wondering, John Sweeney can even make a sea shanty sound elegant. Classy stuff.
Almost time to turn in, and Whoozit (Harold L Muller, 1914) was our first bedtime story. Now, if a whole Charley Bowers movie makes very little sense at all, then I think it’s fair to say a single rediscovered reel will be a puzzler indeed. Great larks though: oysters with eyes humping across the bathroom floor, a teddy bear growing a beard, magic spectacles and an ogre sharpening a giant razor. Deeply enjoyable, brilliantly surreal.
One last thing before we go. The return of Sidney Drew, paired up here with Clara Kimball Young, to prove that the silent movies were spoofing silent movies long before pesky 21st-century scamps thought to do so. I thought Goodness Gracious; Or Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1928) was ragged, but good clean fun, with hapless Gwendoline careering through loopy scenarios while chomping on her chicklit and waiting for her “brave youth” Cornelius to rescue her from another poorly framed misadventure. Undercranked and overegged and mad as a box of oysters. But a wiser soul than I caught up with me and raised a valid question: if this is the parody what is the original? Especially bearing in mind that this was made in 1928. Hmmm …
Corpse of the day: Bessie Love’s dear old pa in The Good Bad Man, God love him. Flat out on his front porch and breathing like a freshly landed fish.
Absurd romantic metaphor of the day: Home is where the hearth is for John Barrymore and Marceline Day in The Beloved Rogue – “Your eyes have swept my heart clean and kindled a fire there that will outlast me.”
Tiny things I love about Pordenone No 36: When the logo appears before a film and a group of dedicated colleagues cheer their own archive. Adore it.
- My blog from the first day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the second day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the third day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the fourth day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the fifth day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the sixth day of the Giornate is here.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here
Two Barrymores today, two appearances from Little Tich and too much, as usual, to recount here. But like the hard-working Cupid in La Rose Bleue (Léonce Perret, 1911), I’m going to give it my best shot. So if you’re sitting comfortably …
In a move designed to cure, or provoke, homesickness in weary British bloggers, this morning we were treated to 90 minutes of Edwardian Entertainment courtesy of Bryony Dixon and Vanessa Toulmin. Accompanying the 40-odd shorts and fragments on piano, percussion voice and everything in between were Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius on stellar form (Horne’s witty use of a kazoo, yes kazoo, in a telephone sketch was priceless). This was a peek at England in its Sunday best and some more outlandish costumes. It was all fun, fun, fun with trips to the seaside, the Punch and Judy show, fireworks, the cinematograph, barrel jumping, the fun fair, the panto and many wonderful processions showcasing our forefathers and mothers’ considerable talent in the fields of costume design and formation dancing – and not just Morris troupes and maypoles. It’s enough to make one crave a stick of rock and a trip to the illuminations. Certainly my northwestern heart leapt at a panorama of Blackpool. And who could resist the sight of a row of Mutoscopes on Morecambe beach with the sign “Look at this and get a laugh”. The perfect solution for those of us who want to watch the flicks all day without depriving ourselves of vitamin D.
If you really want sunshine at this time of year, a trip to Greece is in order, and Oi Peripeteiai Tou Villar (The Adventures of Villar, 1924), the oldest film ever restored by the Greek Film Archive, was a sketchy comic caper, doubling as a sun-dappled tour of Athens. Larky nonsense, but great shots of the Acropolis etc. And now I can say I have seen a Greek silent movie, which is sure to wow the folks down at the Rose and Crown on my return.
But if you want something really gorgeous … the second Dawn of Technicolor compilation had many diverting treats inside, culminating in The Toll of the Sea (1922). This was an exceedingly picturesque melodrama, a reboot of Madame Butterfly in which Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese woman in love with an American. But the bond of love and “marriage” is held more sacred by her than him … Oh and it all ends in sadness and sacrifice and another word beginning with S. Not before Wong’s sumptuous wardrobe and elegant garden (complete with peacock!) have been given the full Technicolor treatment, though. The sweetest of sorrow and the sugariest of eye candy.