Silent London

A place for people who love silent film


Alfred Hitchcock

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.

So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.

As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …

The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2”

The Ring: Alfred Hitchcock’s love of the fight

The Ring (1927)
The Ring (1927) Source: BFI

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. Brand will accompany a screening of Alfred hitchcock’s The Ring at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 October 2015

The Ring is the only Hitchcock movie scenario that Hitch wrote himself. His highly regarded screenwriter Elliott Stannard, Hitch and Alma, his wife plotted it out together, inventing wonderful visual set-pieces such as a sideshow boxer’s rise through the ranks shown as changing fight posters over the months and the leading character’s Othello-like jealousy growing throughout a drink-fuelled dinner party.

Lillian Hall-Davis in The Ring (1927)
Lillian Hall-Davis in The Ring (1927)

Lillian Hall-Davis arguably precedes Anny Ondra as Hitch’s first sexy femme fatale, particularly in this film, in which she loses her head to boxing beefcake Ian Hunter despite marrying genuine athlete Carl Brisson, who is forced to fight for his wife’s affections.

I first scored this film over 10 years ago for a small jazz ensemble and have always loved its daring, its cheeky vivacity and the physicality of its fight scenes. But where did Hitch’s love of the fight game come from, and what does this eccentric film tell us about its creator?

Continue reading “The Ring: Alfred Hitchcock’s love of the fight”

Don’t miss the British Silent Film Festival

High Treason (1929)
High Treason (1929)

Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?

The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.

Michel Strogoff (1926)
Michel Strogoff (1926)

There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.

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Poll: Which British silent film-maker is worth £20?

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The Bank of England doesn’t usually let the public have a say in its decisions, but there is a first time for everything. Having decided to boot Adam Smith’s profile off the £20 banknote, the Bank asked the public to help them choose a replacement – although the institution itself has the final say. Those of us who spend rather than print the money were invited to nominate a visual artist for the bank to select from. An astonishing 29,701 bids came in, resulting in a longlist of 592 British visual artists that someone out there deems worthy of having their face on folding money. The Bank will draw up a shortlist from these names for the Governor to examine, and they will announce the chosen face in early 2016, with the new £20 note finally coming into circulation in 2020.

This is the selection criteria for the new face of the score note:

Through its depiction of historic characters on its banknotes the Bank seeks to celebrate individuals that have shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society.  We do this by representing a person or small groups of individuals whose accomplishments or contributions have been recognised widely at the time, or judged subsequently to have been of lasting benefit to the United Kingdom and, in some cases, beyond.

In choosing the character or characters to appear on a specific note, the Bank takes account of its past decisions.  This is because the Bank intends to celebrate achievement and contribution across a wide range of skills and fields and aims, through time, to depict characters with varied personal characteristics, such that our choices cumulatively reflect the diverse nature of British society.

Did you vote? I suspect some of you might have done, because the longlist is a fascinating read: so many esteemed, and not so highly esteemed, artists appear, including film-makers from Carol Reed to Stanley Kubrick. And there are definitely a few cinematic stars who fulfil that note about “a wide range of skills and fields”, as well as “characters with varied personal characteristics”, although not perhaps reflecting the “diverse nature of British society”. More specifically, I was heartened to see some key figures from the silent era there: from the expected nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, to more leftfield choices such as Maurice Elvey and Louis Le Prince.

Continue reading “Poll: Which British silent film-maker is worth £20?”

Hitchcock Lost and Found review: in search of the Master’s MacGuffins


Alfred Hitchcock may be the only British director of the silent era we don’t automatically label “underappreciated”, or “little-studied”. From Leytonstone to Los Angeles his fame is global, his influence inescapable. After the films themselves, and the TV series, the books, the biopics, the magazine articles and yet more books, there isn’t a cinephile alive who can’t pronounce with some authority on the Master of Suspense.

One subject that all Hitchcock “experts” can expand upon is the MacGuffin device – the pursuit of an elusive object that drives the narrative of a film forward, allowing the business proper to take place along the way. One way of looking at this new book by scholars Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr would be that it is a magnificent MacGuffin hunt. Hitchcock Lost & Found: the Forgotten Films goes after the grey patches on Hitchcock’s CV, the abandoned, incomplete or a loosely connected works that linger largely unwatched and unappreciated.

As well as missing films, this book tracks down the films that Hitchcock scripted, or art-directed, or otherwise assisted on, or one where he jumped into the director’s chair halfway through shooting. The discovery of a few reels of The White Shadow (Graham Cutts, 1923) in 2011 proves that a film doesn’t to be Hitchcock through-and-through to raise the heart rate. And it’s surely not too much to hope that on the trail of these MacGuffins, a hardy Hitchophile could learn a thing or two about Psycho, Rear Window and the man who made them? Not to mention that impressive string of surviving silents running from The Pleasure Garden to Blackmail or Hitchcock’s famously “lost” film, The Mountain Eagle?

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London’s Hollywood: a visual tour of Gainsborough Studio in the 1920s – video

It’s remarkable what you can pick up in three minutes and 45 seconds. This short video by Gary Chapman, author of London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, is an excellent introduction to the British Famous Players-Lasky outpost.

This is the time and the place where Victor Saville and Michael Balcon began their ascent through the British movie industry, where Ivor Novello smouldered for Graham Cutts, and where Alfred met Alma, while making a film or two you may have heard of …

London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years – review

London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, by Gary Chapman

This is a guest post by Henry K Miller for Silent London. Henry K Miller is the editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and has taught film at the University of Cambridge.

Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.

FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.

Continue reading “London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years – review”

Hitchcock’s coming home … Blackmail at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Spotted in an #e17 pub window … Can't wait. #silentfilm #hitchcock9

A photo posted by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17.  Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.

Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.

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Ten lost silent films

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?

Stephen Horne interview: ‘Silent films are constantly surprising’

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

Anyone who wants to learn more about silent film music will enjoy this. Chandler Bennett recorded this interview with Stephen Horne for KALX Berkeley 90.7FM, the student radio station at Berkeley, University of California earlier this year. It was recorded for the KALX show Film Close-ups – if you like what you hear, bookmark the site as it streams the station’s output online.

In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.

Listen to the interview here.

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