The Silent London calendar
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.
We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.
Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.
It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.