The Silent London calendar
This is a guest post for Silent London by Nina Giacomo from Brazil, who blogs at Primeiro Cinema. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
The great majority of the films made between the origins of cinema and the 1910s had colour in some way. People often don’t know that because a lot of films from the 1920s were actually released in black and white and so the evolutionary view of film history makes us think that silent cinema was deprived of colour. But, since the beginnings of cinema, a lot of research was done into colour film and two tendencies were explored: the colourisation after the film had been shot and the capture of “natural colours” while shooting.
This is not a “top 10″ list … It is a selection of 10 films that show a variety of ways of giving colour to the moving image. It is my list of 10 must-watch silent colour films!
Annabelle Serpentine Dance (Edison, 1895)
The first of many films dedicated to the “serpentine dance” created by the american dancer Loïe Fuller in 1889. The hand colourisation, frame by frame, represents Fuller’s spectacular stage effects, which combined the constant flow of the dress’s movement with the projection of electrical lights.
Pierrette’s Escapades (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1900)
A vibrant example of hand-colouring made by Gaumont.
Untitled experiments (Edward Turner, 1901/02)
Theses pictures, recently discovered, are actually a series of tests for a new invention. They show how early the attempts to reproduce “natural colours” began.
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
The colour version of this film was unknown until 1993, when it was found in Barcelona in a terrible condition. Not until 2010 could the restoration could be released and it transformed the image we have of this most iconic of all silent films.
The Lonedale Operator (DW Griffith, 1911)
Here we have an interesting use of colour in silent cinema. The young lady can only trick the bandits (making them believe that she has a gun, when actually it is a wrench) because the scene takes place at night. The blue tinting suggests the time of day.
A Day with John Burroughs (1919)
I saw this film last year at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. I was enchanted by the life lessons from this old man. The colours, made with the Prizma Color system, create such a delicate atmosphere.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
This classic has just been restored and the new version will be shown in February at the Berlin International Film Festival with its original tinting and toning … I can’t wait to see it.
Virginian Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (1926)
An amazing example of Pathécolor, just recently discovered. It shows us a late use of this method that was pioneered by Pathé in France during 1905. Stencils were used to automate the hand-colouring of films.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
A hybrid in many ways: this is a silent, talkie, black-and-white and colour motion picture. The colour scenes are just marvellous.
The Love Charm (Howard Mitchell, 1928)
And here is a little known example of the two-colour Technicolor process. A weird love story in amazing colours.
Do you agree with Nina’s choices? Share your suggestions below
Don’t tell me you missed the fact this year, this February in fact, we are celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kid Auto Races, Chaplin’s first screen appearance as the anarchic scruff, was released on 7 February 1914. It’s a cinematic centenary of the best kind – one that affords the opportunity for screenings of wonderful films and some clever-clever comment and analysis too. An event at the BFI Southbank on 4 February will add a little star power to proceedings, as well as some new insights into the Tramp and his creator.
At The Centenary of the Little Tramp David Robinson will be talking specifically about how Chaplin drew on the music hall tradition of his youth to create his signature character – and how those influences stayed with him and found a beautiful expression in the gorgeous 1952 film Limelight.
This special event marks the centenary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’. One hundred years ago this week the iconic character first stepped in front of the camera at the Keystone studios. David Robinson, Chaplin’s official biographer, presents his latest thoughts on Chaplin and the tramp and celebrates the launch of his new book ‘The World of Limelight,’ commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna, which draws on previously unpublished material from the Chaplin Archive.
Robinson will be launching his book at the event and I think copies will be on sale after the talk with perhaps a booksigning too. A particularly well-informed little bird tells me that Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight, English actress Claire Bloom, will be in attendance also. In fact, Robinson’s book is dedicated to her. Here’s a little more about the book:
Limelight was first cast not as a film script, but as a long novella, Footlights, with the supplementary Calvero’s Story. Both are here published for the very first time – the ultimate raison d’être of this volume. Out of these Chaplin extracted a screenplay which passed through several drafts before being transferred to the screen.
The accompanying commentary in this volume explores the documentary reality of the world which Chaplin recreated from his memories and evoked for posterity – London, the music hall and ballet at the end of an era, the outbreak of the First World War. The book is illustrated with images from the author’s own collection, and reproductions of documents and photographs from the Chaplin archives, which clearly depict the development of the film LIMELIGHT that David Robinson so intricately describes.
The event takes place at 6.20pm in NFT3. For more details, see the event page on the BFI website.
There has been plenty of chat on this blog, and elsewhere, about this fascinating, haunting documentary. Captain John Noel’s chilling film of the Mallory and Irvine’s doomed attempt to conquer the summit of Everest is a work of art, a testament to wild ambition, and a record of the prejudices and misconceptions of its era. For cinema audiences, the spectacle of the film – magnificent mountainscapes, drenched in red or blue tints – came first. Seen on the big screen, The Epic of Everest is utterly mesmerising.
So this home video release has to satisfy two camps. There will be those with deluxe home cinema setups who want to recreate the thrills of the cinema experience – and they will be happy with the high-definition transfer on the Blu-Ray disc here. The images are crisp and stable, with those beautifully rich tints adding real splendour to the scenery. But I suspect a more substantial group, knowing that The Epic will lose a little of its visual power on their TV screen, will want to go deeper into the film, will be looking for history rather than spectacle.
Luckily the secound group is especially well-served by the presentation here. There are featurettes on the making and restoring of the film, as well as a thick booklet of essays, archive images and background information. You’ll remember that Simon Fisher Turner turned in another glacial score for The Epic – sleek, experimental themes comprising electronica and found sounds. There’s a documentary on his work here too, but just in case you’re about to slip out of the door in disgust – hold on.
With this package, the BFI invites you to step back in time to 1924 and experience The Epic of Everest as its first audience did – well within reason. Those who buy the DVD version can download a PDF of the original programme from its premiere at the Scala, and – which may come as a surprise to a few people – you can watch the film with its original orchestral score here too. The score was recorded by the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra and appears as an option alongside the new music, mixed in stereo. It’s less nuanced to 21st-century ears, perhaps, than the new music by Fisher Turner, but its lushness (it sounds almost like a ballet score) is totally immersive. There are some added musical snippets here too – all pieces that would have accompanied the first 1924 screening. If I had a pound coin for everyone who lamented to me that a new release of a silent had a modern score without a more “traditional” version as an audio option, I’d be able to buy a round of drinks for a full house at NFT2, so this is a welcome piece of news. Hats off to the BFI, and to Julie Brown who oversaw the reconstruction of the original music.
For more information, and to buy The Epic of Everest on DVD and Blu-Ray, please click here
This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.
The Unknown (1927)
Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.
Captain Salvation (1927)
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)
A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.
Behind the Door (1919)
With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”
DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.
The Cheat (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”
Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.
An Interesting Story (1904)
A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!
By Neil Brand and Philip Carli.
Do you agree with Neil and Philip’s choices? Please share your suggestions below.
Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) goes on theatrical release this Friday – which should be cause for celebration and mass ticket-buying among all of you. However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably seen this classic, poll-bestriding Civil War caper before, very possibly in the dim and distant. What worries me, what keeps me up at night, is that if so, you may feel a bit “so-whattish” and “seen-it-all-beforeish” about Keaton’s masterpiece. That would be a tragedy, as The General is one of the funniest, most ingenious and gosh-darn exciting films you will ever see in your long and happy life. If familiarity has bred a tough of contempt, or just complacency, in your bosom, I would gladly bend your ear about the pin-sharp 4k transfer, and the booming rendition of Carl Davis’s nimble and turbo-charged score on this digital print. But that geeky stuff isn’t for everyone, so if that doesn’t tempt you, here are five more reasons to see The General … again.
The early, funny stuff
So we all know The General as a chase film, packed with stunts and crashing locomotives. Well, it actually starts in a very sedate fashion, as our hero Johnnie (Buster Keaton) goes to visit his girl Annabelle, who prompts him to enlist and fight for the South. Patience is a virtue – don’t be in a rush to get to the fast and furious business on the tracks. Johnnie’s pratfall as he leaves Annabelle’s house, the beautiful recruiting-office sequence and that wonderful selfie of Johnnie and his other beloved are all worth arriving at the cinema nice and early for. The scene-setting opening ends with one of the quietest, but most dangerous stunts in the whole movie, as Johnnie perches forlornly on the coupling rods of a locomotive that is picking up speed …
The General‘s Southern belle is far more than a damsel in distress. To be frank, she’s a pain in the neck – watch her daintily selecting firewood and feel Johnnie’s pain. But to be fair, she takes more than her share of punishment too: kidnapped, soaked (twice), caught in a bear trap, stuffed into a sack and loaded as freight. Not only that, but consider this: to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, you try doing everything Buster Keaton does, but backwards and in a crinoline.
There is another reason to take note of Annabelle – she is played by a fascinating woman. Marion Mack knew more than most about the silent movie business. A former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, she later turned her hand to screenwriting, including a semi-autobiographical flick called Mary of the Movies, which she also acted in. In the the 30s, she even wrote a talkie short for Keaton. And when critical favour began to smile on The General in the 70s, she was on hand to speak at screenings and festivals, explaining what it was like to play one of Keaton’s not-so-straight women. We don’t have opportunities like that any more, so thank you Marion.
Yes, that is a real train
The one that falls through the burning Rock River Bridge? Yup. It’s not a model (you’re thinking of The Blacksmith). And if you thought it was CGI – shame on you. Famously, the destruction of the train in The General is the most expensive shot in silent movie history, and it’s a salient reminder that everything you see on screen here is real – including the danger that Keaton and Co frequently faced as they went about those wild stunts.
Those damn Yankees
Marion Mack isn’t the only thing here that gives us a flashback to Mack Sennett’s mid-teens romps. Those Yankee soldiers giving chase to Johnnie and Annabelle are enjoyably, hilariously inept. Hoot as a whole gaggle of them fail to fix the points our man has so thoroughly snookered, until their driver appears with a an axe and a shove; chortle as they topple like dominoes with every jolt of the engine. These buffoons are Keystone Kops in all but name. A guilty pleasure in a very sophisticated film.
War is hell
It’s not all larks and big kids playing with big train sets, of course. The General is a war movie, based on a true story – the hijacking of a train headed for Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it’s easy to forget that The General has a rather grim battle scene of its own, with swords and snipers and several deaths. Even the jokes fail to lighten the mood here. The flag gag, in which Johnnie grabs a confederate pennant from his falling comrade’s hand, and waves it in victory from a rocky outcrop, only to discover he has seriously misplaced his feet, is an unexpected splash of black humour. It’s a nifty moment that sharply undercuts any jingoistic vibes you may get from this story of a plucky underdog and his little engine that could.
If you see The General on its extended run at BFI Southbank, it will accompanied by Keaton’s sublime early short One Week. If you were to ask me, right now, which of the two were the better film, I would have to say … “tough call”.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)
The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.
Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)
The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend. The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.
(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)
That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)
Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle. In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
Long legendary as the first – and only – silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (at the very first ceremony, back in 1927), Wings now comes to us in a stunning new restoration, courtesy of Eureka’s ever-dependable Masters of Cinema label. The film tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who compete for the affections of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), before becoming comrades in the airfields of World War I. Star power was added by the original “It girl”, Clara Bow, in the role of Jack’s neighbour, Mary – the pure-eyed girl next door with an undying love for our hero.
If this setup – minus the Mary strand – sounds familiar to silent film fans, it’s perhaps due to a striking similarity to the setup of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), in which two rivals in love become comrades on the battlefields of World War I. However, if the overall plot of Wings at times resembles that of J’accuse, it does so without that film’s stringent anti-war message – and without its power.
In Wings, we are often told of the “horrors” of war in the title cards, but rarely do we see them. Even towards the end, when the body count begins to rise, it never feels as if we’re given a true sense of the barbarity of war. Compare, for instance, the lightness of the scenes detailing the cancellation of the soldier’s leave with the devastating impact of the equivalent scenes in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses, released just five years later. The closest Wings gets to touching upon this darkness is its final tragedy, but even there the film doesn’t quite hit home, despite the characters explicitly saying that the “war” is to blame. Wings was made with the assistance of a military in need of good PR, and perhaps it’s this that led to the film becoming a paean to the “young warriors of the sky” (as with J’accuse, real soldiers acted in the film, many of whom had seen service in the Great War). It’s a fine tribute to those who fought but, in being so, there remains a whiff of propaganda around the film’s portrayal of the chivalric life of these “knights of the air”.