Silent London

A place for people who love silent film



Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 6

Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). The Museum of Modern Art, New York

This, too, is history  – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

You can blame it on too much caffé espresso, or Douglas Fairbanks withdrawal, or the collective post-Les Mis comedown. Whatever the reason, I saw two comedies today that I could only just follow, and which just occasionally made me laugh. If I tell you they were Soviet comedies, you might jump to a conclusion. But trust me, I have form in this area – I normally laughalonga-Lenin.

Tonight’s evening screening was Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik (The State Official, 1931), a cheeky caper about a faceless state underling tempted by the chance to pilfer a suitcase of roubles for him and his missus and their young daughter. I suspect it is gentlest of comedy anyway, but with a propagandistic framing story about renovating the rolling stock on either end of it, it truly is, as I was warned, not a “comedy-comedy”.

Big Trouble (1930). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
Big Trouble (1930). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

Rating higher on the laughometer but lower on comprehensibility for my poor failing brain was Krupnaia Nepriyatnost (Big Trouble, 1930), in which the culture clash between old and new in a provincial village is exemplified by, at first, the rivalry between old-style carriages and imported American cars. The scene thus laid, the real set-to involves a mixup of of speakers at local events: the director of the new arts centre rocks up to the church, and the priest appears to address the culture vultures. Horror, and then an “exchange of hostages” ensues. This was much brighter, with vivid casting, compositions that took us by surprise and a real sense of pace and energy. Plus, inventive musical accompaniment courtesy of a Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin collaboration. We were still a little flummoxed though. The same director as Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga and a similar sense of fun, but not as successful.

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 6”

Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015) review: a dialogue-free delight

Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
Animals fare far better in silents than talkies. The absence of dialogue puts them on an equal footing with their human co-stars, and what’s more, they’re cuter. The only place left in these synchronised days where feathered and furred characters can expect top billing is in animated movies – digitally rendered and belting out showtunes. While we have become accustomed to talking animals in children’s animations, ever since Mickey Mouse started to squeak, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is a gent from the old school, having stubbornly refused to articulate anything more complicated than a bleat for 20 years.

And now Shaun the Sheep, who like the most illustrious slapstick comedians, is both black-and-white and silent, has been given his very own feature film. And no bankable Hollywood name has been roped in to voice his inner monologue. While the advance publicity has not been playing up the silent angle, this is a dialogue-free delight, a champion of visual gags, physical comedy and unutterable joy. Following on from the 2007 series of short animations made for CBBC, Shaun and his fellows dwell in an almost wordless world, baa-ing and snorting and belching their feelings, just like their harrumphing two-legged companions. As in the shorts, the written word often appears as an incomprehensible squiggle – perfect for young children who would be challenged or bored by too many letters.

Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
But Shaun the Sheep has an adult audience too, who appreciated his seven-minute TV escapades not just as kid-friendly fun, but as throwbacks to the silent comedy greats. Aardman’s previous films have cheekily plundered the classics for plots and sly in-jokes – restaging The Great Escape in a hen coop for its feature debut, Chicken Run (2000). Shaun the Sheep the Movie is no exception. There’s barely a frame, or a foley effect here that isn’t a wink to Jacques Tati. And amid nods to Inception, Taxi Driver and The Terminator, there is a Hannibal Lecter-impersonating cat who wins the movie-reference game hands down. C’mon, you’d feel cheated without a mention of The Silence of the Lambs, wouldn’t you? There’s a tip of the titfer to classic British animation too. Shaun’s longing for a break from the farm’s daily grind of tedium and indignity accidentally results in a barnyard mutiny and more than a shade of Animal Farm.

Continue reading “Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015) review: a dialogue-free delight”

Before Mickey Mouse: support a new documentary about American silent animation

UPDATE July 2015 : Cartoon Carnival is now looking for completion funds. Support the film here

Well, this looks like an interesting investment. Andrew Smith, one of the brains behind the critically acclaimed Gerry Anderson documentary Filmed in Supermarionation, wants to make a new documentary about a less well-known era of animation – the silent years. He has turned to Kickstarter to fund his film, so if you like his idea, you can back Cartoon Carnival yourself. For those who pledge £1 or more, Smith is promising “a virtual hug”. Some of the other rewards are even more enticing!

To many, the history of American animated cartoons begins with the story of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Before the mouse, however, Disney was simply one of many who attempted to make their name in animated cartoons. From the earliest experiments with moving drawings, to the technical and artistic triumphs that arrived just prior to the introduction to synchronized sound, men like Winsor McCay, John R. Bray, and Max Fleischer pushed to make each cartoon better than the last. To our mind, their names deserve to be as venerated as their counterparts in the live-action film industry.

Beyond their historic significance, it it worth stressing that many of the animated films produced during the silent period are wildly entertaining and often down right weird and wonderful. In the days before film censorship or the misconception that cartoons were only for children, anything went. The result is a valuable canon of films which firmly reflects American society of the time.

The proposed documentary film will make use of a treasure trove of early American animation, held by collector Tommy José Stathes, who has an impressive archive, which he delves into for regular screenings in New York.
Continue reading “Before Mickey Mouse: support a new documentary about American silent animation”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

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.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)
The Glorious Adventure (1922)

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?

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

The New Janitor (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor (1914)

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.

Pansidong (1927)
Pansidong (1927)

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.

Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)
Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)

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.

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4”

Shaun the Sheep the Movie: teaser trailer – video

Will this be something we consider to be a truly silent film? Who knows. But it’s dialogue-free, delightful and comes to us courtesy of our friends at Aardman Animations, whose support for the Slapstick Festival is legendary. Shaun the Sheep the Movie is scheduled for release in spring 2015. Not just for kiddywinks, we’re sure.

More details here – and on the official Shaun the Sheep website.

From Aardman, the creators of Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run, comes the highly anticipated big screen debut of Shaun the Sheep. When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he baa-rgained for! Shaun’s mischief accidentally causes the Farmer to be taken away from the farm, so it’s up to Shaun and the flock to travel to the Big City to rescue him. Will Shaun find the Farmer in the strange and unfamiliar world of the City before he’s lost forever? Join Shaun and the flock on their hilarious, action-packed adventure in Shaun the Sheep the Movie – only in cinemas Spring 2015.

Top 10 animated silent shorts

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Robyn Ludwig,. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay, 1914)

Long before there was Bambi or Simba, there was Gertie. The simple ink dinosaur charmed vaudeville audiences with her feisty attitude, and she remains to this day a masterpiece of keyframe animation.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (J Stuart Blackton, 1906)

The first entirely animated film, Humorous Phases is a classic lightning sketch film, with chalkboard characters brought to life through stop-motion and cutout animation.

Felix in Hollywood (Otto Messmer, 1923)

Here the iconic kitty meets Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and film censor William Hays, in the first cartoon to feature caricatures of Hollywood celebrities.

Fantasmagorie (Emile Cohl, 1908)

The morphing stick figure clown, inspired by Humorous Phases, is considered the earliest frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation.

Aschenputtel (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

Reiniger’s elegant silhouette animation creates a surreal fairytale world that is both shadowy and sharp.

Continue reading “Top 10 animated silent shorts”

A Boy and His Atom: the world’s smallest silent movie

Full disclosure: this is basically an advert for IBM. But it tickled me, because this mind-boggling short reminds us that “primitive” film-making is often the most ingenious. This is stop-motion animation at the molecular level, which sounds too convoluted for words. But in the finish, it’s quite adorable.

The ability to move single atoms — the smallest particles of any element in the universe — is crucial to IBM’s research in the field of atomic memory. But even nanophysicists need to have a little fun. In that spirit, IBM researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope to move thousands of carbon monoxide molecules (two atoms stacked on top of each other), all in pursuit of making a movie so small it can be seen only when you magnify it 100 million times. A movie made with atoms.

You can watch a video about the making of A Boy and His Atom here.

Birds Eye View Sound & Silents – Sumurun and The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Birds Eye View is one of Silent London’s favourite film festivals – a celebration of female film-makers with an exceptionally strong and musically adventurous silent cinema strand. Last year, even though the festival was on haitus, the Sound & Silents programme brought us a selection of newly scored Mary Pickford films. This year, in keeping with the overall theme of the festival, the screenings have an Arabian flavour.

The two films in the Sound & Silents segment are, to be frank, German – but the first, Lotte Reiniger’s trailblazing cutwork animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is based on a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights, as also, perhaps more loosely, is the second, Ernst Lubitsch’s boisterous harem farce Sumurun (1920). Achmed, widely acknowledged as the first animated feature film, and still as elegantly beautiful today as in the 1920s, probably needs no introduction from me.

Sumurun (1920)
Sumurun (1920)

The latter film is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine – a rather well-made romp, enlivened by the sinuous presence of the young Pola Negri, and the more demure charms of Swedish ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist. Lubitsch himself appears as a leery clown with hunchback, but his real star turn is behind the camera, crafting a fast-paced and vivacious comedy out of unpromising material. Sumurun had been a stage hit for Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin, and Negri had starred in both that production as well as one back in her hometown of Warsaw – perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that this film is so slick, with such larger-than-life performances, including Paul Wegener as a bully-boy sheik. I will concede, of course, that it is rarely, if ever, politically correct.

Sound & Silents is as much admired for its musical commissions as its programming, and it’s intriguing that these German Arabian pastiches will be accompanied by scored from musicians whose roots lie in both Western Europe and the Middle East – British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and Sudanese-Italian Amira Kheir.

Multi-award-winning contemporary classical composer Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemblecombining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.

Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Kheir has recently won acclaim for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts.

Initially at least, the Sound & Silents screenings will be held in London and Bristol. Bushra El-Turk’s score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed premieres at a screening at the Southbank Centre on Thursday 7 March, with a second performance on Friday 5 April at the Barbican. Sumurun plays with Amira Kheir’s new score at BFI Southbank on Thursday 4 April and will then show at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol on Sunday 14 April. Click on the links for more information and to book tickets. Find out more about Birds Eye View here.

Disney’s disappointing Paperman


This is a guest post for Silent London by Chris Edwards of the Silent Volume blog.

I don’t want anyone accusing me of ingratitude, much less of being a grouch. So I’m going to tell you all the reasons I think Paperman is wonderful, before I tell you why it’s not.

Paperman has been rightfully lauded, you see. At least, if we’re talking about the animation itself, which, it seems to me, is the major preoccupation of those praising the film. Fair enough. In an industry fuelled by hype, Paperman is, legitimately, indisputably, a leap forward.

This is Disney’s newest cartoon short: a black-and-white film you’ll see just ahead of Wreck-It Ralph. Utilising a newly developed program called Meander, allowing them to draw traditional images over pre-constructed CG designs, Disney’s animators have created characters who move with the fluidity of 3-D animation, while possessing the warmth and expressiveness of a 2-D line. The effect is remarkable, and beautiful.

Paperman is set in New York City, in the 1940s. The film opens with two strangers: a man and a woman, both in their early-twenties, meeting on an elevated train platform, after the wind blows one of the Man’s documents into the Woman’s face. Her lipstick leaves a mark on the paper. He is smitten. So is she. As her train pulls away from the platform, she is looking out the window, back at him. It will become his mission to find her.

The animation here is very … precise. Disciplined. This is the work of men and women with a clear vision: They knew they were making a cartoon, not an oil painting; and that a little exaggeration was for the best. So the wind nudges the man’s lanky frame just right — but not quite realistically. As the man himself does not look like a real man, but rather, a man rendered in Disney’s style, so too is his reaction a little more than it would be from you or me.

I should add that this scene is dialogue-free, as is the rest of Paperman. It is “silent”, at least in the sense that WALL-E has been called silent. In fact, you hear lots of things in Paperman. You just don’t hear words.

As in true silent films, the absence of chatter in Paperman allows us to focus on the visuals, and director John Kahrs is generous with them. I clearly remember the young woman’s smile: a half-smirk, half-grin she gives the Man after seeing the lipstick mark. You’d never see that look on a dame in a film from the 40s, but it’s a familiar one among my friends today. Kahrs lets us savour it.


The office where the Man works is likewise inspired. It’s a deadening workspace, recalling the fleet of identical desks in The Apartment (and of course, The Crowd), but on a smaller scale. The Man seems decades younger than his colleagues, all of whom frown at him. Watching the film a second time, I found myself wondering why he was there. If his job is entry-level, why is he the only young person in the room? Is he an intern? Is this during the war, and his peers are overseas? Maybe he’s the Boss’s son? The Boss, a severe fellow, had some of the qualities of a stern dad. And maybe a disappointed one.

A seven-minute film cannot answer these questions, at least in any detail. But it is a credit to Disney’s team that they could create characters rich enough to inspire them. By the time the Man spies the Woman through a window in the skyscraper across the street — almost level with his own office, no less — we’re pulling for him; convinced he should and must get her attention. He begins folding his stack of blank forms (the symbols of the job he hates) into paper airplanes, whizzing them unsuccessfully above or below his target, or past her — and we yearn, with him, for one of them to connect.

We can all relate, can’t we? We’ve all felt lost and powerless this way. Kahrs, describing his own experience of New York City to animation historian Jerry Beck, recalled how odd it was “to feel alone while being surrounded by people all the time.” We sense the Man’s aloneness too, and his loneliness. At this point, Paperman feels like a seven-minute version of Lonesome, the 1928 (mostly) silent film about two sad young people who meet, fall in love, and then lose each other in the wash of humanity that is the big city. Lonesome is a great film.


But all good things must end. And in Paperman, the good things end before the film does.

Explaining why is easy; doing so without spoilers is not. What I can say is that I was deeply, deeply disappointed by the ending of this film, not because of the outcome (a happy ending or a sad one would have been fine), but because of the mechanism. After several lovely minutes, built out of fine details, and true gestures, and hard-won audience investment rooted in believable characters doing believable things, the Man’s problem is finally solved through … magic realism.

Boo to that. Boo to it for being a sudden turn, taking us out of one universe and into another. Boo to it for being unnecessary. Boo to it for being depressingly predictable — we’re suckers for this stuff nowadays, be it Twilight or Beasts of the Southern Wild. Why here? Why squander the good will and creative effort of the first four minutes of Paperman for a resolution that is (merely) splendid to look at? Admittedly, it is that—manic, well-choreographed, even funny, I suppose, if it doesn’t annoy you.

And it may not. Many people will find the ending of Paperman delightful, and fully in keeping with what came before. They would tell me I’m nit-picking. But some would also, I think, tell me I’m asking too much from a cartoon. And they’d be wrong to do that.

I say Disney can do better.

Chris Edwards

Paperman is nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award at Sunday’s Oscars. You can watch it online here.

Blog at | The Baskerville Theme.

Up ↑


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,081 other followers