Silent London

A place for people who love silent film



The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) – the great lost British film

The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)
The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand.

In late 1918 a film was in preparation that was to rewrite the history books – a British picture, running almost as long as Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, bringing to life the political career of the country’s prime minister, the full ferocity of the war and the experience of ordinary people caught up in these momentous events. It was called The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Nothing as ambitious had been tried before and it was ready for launch immediately after Armistice Day. There was even a deal in place with Carl Laemmle to splash it across the American continent.

Then late one afternoon in January 1919, a lawyer arrived at the offices of Ideal Film Company, the film’s producers, handed over £20,000 in £1,000 notes and drove away with the only negative and positive copies of the film. It was never seen again by its makers, its writer, the respected historian Sir Sidney Low, or its director Maurice Elvey. No audience saw it at the time and the film became a lost treasure.

But you can see it at the Barbican on 17 February, 2013.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)
The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

The story behind these extraordinary events is still murky, but what we do know is this. Towards the end of 1918, as the film was nearing completion, the owners of Ideal Film, the Rowson brothers, issued a writ for libel  against John Bull magazine, edited by the virulent xenophobe Horatio Bottomley, which had accused them of being German sympathisers (largely on account of their original name, Rosenbaum). At the same time, word came down from Lloyd George himself that he was unhappy with the film going ahead, this despite the fact that the producers had secured his involvement before shooting began. These two events are almost certainly linked, but the outcome is still shocking to this day.

Maurice Elvey
Maurice Elvey

The £20,000 paid to Ideal represented the out-of-pocket costs of the film not appearing – the greater costs, to Elvey, to lead actor Norman Page, whose Lloyd George is a phenomenal performance of nuance and understatement, even to the future of the British film industry, are incalculable. As Kevin Brownlow wrote on seeing the film in 1996, “… had the Life Story of David Lloyd George been released, Elvey might even have been hailed ‘The Griffith of Britain’ … certainly the film would have been placed beside the best work from America and the continent and it would not have been entirely overshadowed.”

So how did Brownlow come to see it? In 1994 the Welsh Film Archive in Aberystwyth took delivery of 16 cans of film found on the farm of Lord Tenby, grandson of Lloyd George. These turned out to contain 137 unedited rolls of nitrate film, which, after two years of painstaking restoration and reconstruction work, finally hit a screen before an audience in North Wales in April 1996 – I was the pianist on that occasion, unable to believe my luck.

For Lloyd George is a phenomenal film, a history that plays out like a biopic, a time-capsule that, at its best, still holds  a modern audience with extraordinary power. Like the best biopics it hops nimbly between the big picture and the small, creating a fascinating portrait of Lloyd George within an entirely convincing political and domestic world. It has massive scenes, including a riot at Birmingham Town Hall with nearly a thousand extras; and quiet, contemplative scenes informed by Page’s charismatic dignity. Best of all, it still has the power to move, as much as it would have done with those audiences of 1919 who were destined never to see it. I urge you to see this “lost” masterpiece on its only London showing, and be prepared to have your preconceptions about British cinema, the first world war and silent cinema acting overturned.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)
Norman Page and Alma Reville in The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

The National Library of Wales holds more information on this extraordinary film and its story, if not the solution to the mystery of the film’s disappearance. Here’s my take on it – the film turned up among Lloyd George’s own possessions and, as was common knowledge at the time, £20,000 was about the going rate for a baronetcy …

Neil Brand

The Life Story of David Lloyd George screens at the Barbican on 17 February 2013 at 4pm with an introduction by Ian Christie and live accompaniment by Neil Brand. You can book tickets online here. If you can’t make the London screening, the film is also available on DVD with Neil Brand’s score. You can read more, and watch some clips from the film here. To read even more, you can buy the excellent book edited by David Berry and Simon Horrocks: David Lloyd George: the Movie Mystery.

Reader offer: The Sinking of the Titanic at the Barbican, 15 April 2012

The Barbican is marking the weekend’s 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster with a moving event that combines live music with archive footage. Gavin BryarsThe Sinking of the Titanic was inspired by reports that the ship’s string ensemble continued to play the hymn Autumn as the vessel sank; it was written in 1969 and first recorded on Brian Eno’s label Obscure. It will be performed in the Barbican concert hall by the Gavin Bryars ensemble with multimedia artist Philip Jeck.

The archive footage projections have been designed by film-maker Bill Morrison, whose work, including Decasia and The Miners’ Hymns, you may already be familiar with, in collaboration with Laurie Olinder.

Tickets for the event start at £15, but readers of this blog can enjoy a 20% discount when booking online. See the promotional code below.

Throughout the 72 minute piece Bryars and the ensemble weave refrains from Autumn with layers of Jeck’s sample-based materials, creating, at times, clamouring waves of sound that suggest the great engines and massive bulk of the vessel and the ocean that swallowed it. The result is a heart-achingly intimate and direct work.

The Sinking of the Titanic also features projection design by the internationally renowned Bill Morrison, who has commissioned work for some of the most important composers of his time, such as Steve Reich and Henryk Gorecki . Collaborating alongside Morrison is Laurie Olinder, multimedia designer, founding member of New York’s Ridge Theater with previous work being screened at some of the world’s most prestigious arts venues, such as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Silent London readers can claim a 20% discount on tickets for The Sinking of the Titanic. Just enter promo code 15412 when booking online, at The Sinking of the Titanic plays at the Barbican on 15 April 2012 at 8pm.

Read more about the earliest films of  the Titanic disaster and about events to commemorate the anniversary in our guest post by Greg Ward here.

Beggars of Life with the Dodge Brothers, Barbican, 29 April 2012

Beggars of Life (1928)
Beggars of Life (1928)

If you were at the British Silent Film Festival last year, you won’t need telling twice to book for Beggars of Life. The gorgeous Louise Brooks, leery Wallace Beery, a hulking great train, ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman at the helm and a soundtrack by the coolest skiffle band in town.

This show is a fine example of how invigorating the combination of a great silent movie and live music can be. The Dodge Brothers, an Americana-drenched quartet featuring none other than bequiffed film critic Mark Kermode on bass and harmonica, will accompany rail-riding rom-com Beggars of Life at the Barbican next month. And their numbers will be swelled by Neil Brand on the piano. Here’s a taster of one of the quieter moments from their score.

And here’s a review of their BSFF performance at the BFI Southbank last year, from the Ithankyou blog. Bryony Dixon herself says: “Never has a film and a band been more perfectly matched”. And if you want more Dodge Brothers action, don’t forget that they’re playing this year’s BSFF too, accompanying Abram Room’s The Ghost That Never Returns.

Beggars of Life screens at the Barbican on 29 April 2012 at 4pm. Tickets start from £7.50 and they’re available here. Please note this screening is rated 12A

An Italian Straw Hat, Barbican, 19 February 2012

An Italian Straw Hat (1927)
An Italian Straw Hat (1927)

The Barbican silent film and live music season continues in fine style with this sophisticated, satirical French comedy. René Clair’s film is a period piece, set in 1895, the year the Lumière brothers first unveiled their cinématographe, but was released just as the talkies were changing cinema for good – or ill. With few intertitles and plenty of visual humour, An Italian Straw Hat is classic of silent cinema, which Pauline Kael described as  “so expertly timed and so elegantly directed that farce becomes ballet”. Contemporary reviews praised its:

“Delightful social irony and hilarious situations welded into divertingly sustained comedy. Amusing characterisations which are ironic criticisms. Witty situations and deft development. “

Albert Préjean stars as a hapless bridegroom whose journey to his own wedding is interrupted when his horse chews up a woman’s hat. She demands a replacement, which is easier said than done, and the groom is soon tangled up in a series of comic misunderstandings. An Italian Straw Hat is more than farce though, it uses the absurd premise as a route into a sly attack on bourgeois narrow-mindedness. The Silents Are Golden website sums it up this way:

The plea for intelligence, for rising above petty worries like lost gloves, for refusing to be constrained by petty convention, make An Italian Straw Hat a crusader in human propaganda. The sublimely naturalistic sets, the superb uniformity of the acting, and the flawless action continuity are the measure of René Clair’s technical proficiency.

If you’ve seen René Clair’s short silents, such as Entr’acte and Paris Qui Dort, or his later work including the Sous les Toits de Paris and A Nous la Liberté your appetite will already be whetted. Stop reading this blog, and book yourself a ticket.

An Italian Straw Hat screens at the Barbican on 19 February 2012 at 4pm. Piano accompaniment will be provided by Andrew Youdell. Tickets begin at £7.50 and you can buy them here.

Charley Chase films at the Barbican, 22 January 2012

Charley Chase
Charley Chase

You’re all over Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Roscoe Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy too. But there’s more to silent comedy than those big, big names, and this January, the Barbican offers a chance to get to know another fantastic funnyman from the early days of cinema, the dapper, charming Charley Chase – a comic as hilarious as his moustache is thin and elegant.

Charles Parrott started out in vaudeville, like so many silent comedians, but he went to work for Mack Sennett at Keystone in the early teens. While there, he appeared in a few films with Mr Chaplin and moved into directing as well. He directed several more films at Hal Roach’s studios, and after Harold Lloyd deaprted those premises he began starring in his own short films, under the name Charley Chase.

Chase’s silent movies were generally two-reelers, and the most famous of them were directed by Leo McCarey – three of which will be showing at the Barbican. Chase’s speciality is the comedy of embarrassment – character-driven farce as much as pure slapstick. In His Wooden Wedding, Chase is tricked, by a love rival, into believing his bride has a wooden leg. Mighty Like a Moose features a married couple who both undergo extreme makeovers courtesy of a plastic surgeon and then subsequently fail to recognise each other. Oliver Hardy takes a small role in Crazy Like a Fox, in which Chase pretends to be mad in order to avoid an arranged marriage. In each case, of course, mortifying complications ensue.

Crazy Like a Fox (1926), His Wooden Wedding (1925) and Mighty Like a Moose (1926) screen at the Barbican on 22 January at 3pm. Piano accompaniment will be provided by John Sweeney. Tickets start at £7.50 and are available from the Barbican website here.

  • There will also be a chance to see some Charley Chase classics at the Slapstick Festival in Bristol next month – so check that out too.

Battalion (1927) at the Barbican, 20 November 2011

Battalion (1927)
Battalion (1927)

A rarely seen gem from Czechoslovakian silent cinema, Battalion (1927) tells the story of a lawyer who becomes a champion of the Prague underclass. It was remade in 1937 as a sound film, but the 1920s version is considered superior: gritty and emotionally affecting.

A much loved novel and play in its day, Josef Hais Tynecky’sBattalion was based on the fortunes of a real-life reluctant hero who took on the legal system. Popular Czech singer Karel Hasler stars as the disillusioned lawyer who swaps his home for the ill-famed pub Battalion after finds his wife with a lover. Living among the poor and drop-outs of Prague he becomes their patron, and when one of them is shot during a police raid, he stands as a key witness in the trial. Raw and effective, director Premysl Prazsky imbues his 14th film with an intellectual and emotional depth exceptional for its time.

The film’s star Karel Hasler, was a very popular Czech musician, director and actor who appeared in several film. Tragically, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 for “crimes” including singing patriotic songs, taken to a concentration camp, and tortured to death.

Battalion screens at the Barbican on 20 November 2011 at 4pm, with a live piano score from Jiří Hradil, a Czech rock musician who is also known for his silent film accompaniments. Tickets start at £7.50 and are available here, on the Barbican website.

Silent Hitchcock films at the London 2012 Festival

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The 2012 Olympics are not just about sport. The London 2012 Festival will bring hundreds of cultural events to the capital as well. Music, dance, art and literature all get a look-in, but of course, the strand that really catches my eye is The Genius of Hitchcock. The sound films of Leytonstone’s favourite son will be shown at a complete retrospective at the BFI in August, September and October 2012. Before that, and more importantly, Hitchcock’s wonderful silent films – all nine that survive – are in the process of being restored by the BFI, and will be screened across London next summer, with live, specially commissioned scores. These special events will be must-sees for silent film fans, so I’ll be keeping you updated as the tickets go on sale.

The Lodger (1927)
The Lodger (1927)

The exciting news for readers outside London is that The Lodger will also receive a theatrical release – and the performances of The Ring and Champagne will be streamed live online too.

The first screenings have now been announced, and you can even start booking tickets. I will update this post as more details and dates are announced

  • 28 & 29 June 2012: Hitchcock’s first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925) will be shown in the gorgeous, and apt, Wilton’s Music Hall in Limehouse, with a score written by rising star composer Daniel Patrick Cohen and performed by the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble. Tickets cost £21.50 and you can book them on the BFI website.
  • 6 July 2012: The wonderful silent version of Blackmail will be accompanied by Neil Brand’s magnificent orchestral score when it screens at one of its most celebrated locations – the British Museum. Tickets here.
  • 13 July 2012: The Ring (1927) is a love triangle with rival boxers trying to win the heart of the same woman, and is one of the most recognisably Hitchcockian of his silents. It is screened here at the magnificent Hackney Empire in East London, with a jazz score by Soweto Kinch, performed by a five-piece band. Tickets start at £15 and you can buy them here.
  • 21 July 2012: Probably Hitchcock’s most famous silent film, and his first suspense thriller, The Lodger (1926) will be shown at the Barbican Concert Hall. The score, composed by Nitin Sawhney, will be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Tickets are on sale now.
Watch this space, Hitchcock fans. And don’t forget, you can still donate to support the restoration of Hitchcock’s silent films:

The Wolves at the Barbican, 13 November 2011

The Wolves (1923)
The Wolves (1923)

What can I tell you about The Wolves? I’ve not seen it, but I hear very good things. It’s a Portuguese silent film, from 1923, shot on location and with non-professional actors. It was directed by Rino Lupo, who had previously worked elsewhere in Europe, most notably for Gaumont in Paris. He made one hit film in Portugal, Mulheres da Beira (1923), but it sounds as if The Wolves was a troubled production – Lupo was sacked by the studio after the film wrapped, for missing deadlines and for financial “disagreements”.
It’s an unusual film by all accounts, described as having a “paradoxical uniqueness”, and telling the story of a stranger’s damaging arrival in a rustic community, fresh out of jail. The title refers to the two lead characters: “wildly violent in their desires and impulses”. It’s a elemental film, we’re told, and that location photography is very important. “The sea and the mountains push heavily, encircling their psyches and ways of life.” Also, The Wolves features Portuguese cinema’s first scene of full nudity, if that is of any interest to you.

Having shunned the studio and the professional actor, and also the temptation to import a foreign, tried and tested formula that was common practice in Portugal and other peripheral film industries of the time, Lupo opened the way, some would say, to the specific irregularity of a cinema, that of Portugal, that only during the years of the dictatorship, and elsewhere recently, has walked the tracks of mainstream production.

The Wolves screens at the Barbican Cinema on 13 November at 4pm. This will be the film’s UK premiere, which will be accompanied by live music composed by Luis Soldado, conducted by Maestro Rui Pinheiro, and performed by Grupo de Música Contemporânea de Lisboa. The film will be introduced by Tiago Baptista, Rino Lupo’s biographer. For tickets, visit the Barbican website.

The Wheels of Chance at the Barbican, 9 October 2011

One of the many things that Silent London loves about the Barbican’s Silent Film and Live Music strand is the way it crosses over other with film festivals taking place at the venue. There are silent screenings coming up that are part of the Portuguese and Czech Film Festivals, for example. The Portuguese silent, The Wolves (1923), looks particularly interesting – but more of that in a future post.

The film festival we’re concerned with today is the Bicycle Film Festival, now in its 11th year and packed full of cool documentaries about urban bikers and BMX stunts. The Wheels of Chance (1922) is rather more genteel, though: an adaptation of an HG Wells novel by American director Harold Shaw. The hero of this caper is an awkward draper’s assistant, who falls for a cycling beauty while on holiday in the home counties. We’re told that the story is a “metaphor for the revolutionary effect of the bicycle on Edwardian society”, but it also sounds like a good deal of fun. This is how the Bioscope reported a screening of the film at Pordenone two years ago:

Filmed, as is seemingly usual with Shaw, largely on location with strong emphasis on pictorialism. Wheels of Chance is a comedy with a plot borrowed from a melodrama, with George K. Arthur, back from Shaw’s Kipps, as a draper’s assistant on a cycling tour foiling the machinations of a foreign-named cad – Bechamel – trying to elope, also by bicycle, with a naive suburban girl thereby trapping her into compromising situations in Home Counties pub/hotels, while her mother and her entourage set off in pursuit. Charming but never cloying, the happy ending here is not the unlikely riding off into the sunset – socially impossible in those times – but a recognition by all parties of the lessons learned; she is less naive, and she and her elders have learned respect for their ‘social inferior’; he gains self-respect, and has had his horizons broadened just a little bit … it’s a well-made film, with its heart in the right place, and those evocative shots of 1920s Surrey and Hampshire …

Music for the screening will be provided by Robin Harris on piano and the feature will be accompanied by two early shorts: Thomas Edison’s Bicycle Tricks (1899) and the hypnotic Ladies on Bicycles (1899), shown above.

The Wheels of Chance screens at the Barbican Cinema at 4pm on 9 October 2011. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Barbican website.

Win tickets for Underground with the BBC Symphony Orchestra

There’s nothing like seeing a film with a live orchestra – it’s far more exciting than surround sound. That’s why at Silent London we’re so excited about the world premiere of Neil Brand’s score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928), which will be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 5 October.

Undergound is set in London, among what Asquith called “everyday” people, but that doesn’t mean that this is an unsophisticated film. Far from it. The director’s appreciation of European and Russian cinema (he was a co-founder of the London Film Society) is betrayed by his use of Expressionist shadows, subjective camerawork and montage editing. This is 1920s London, but not like you may have seen before.

Underground tells the story of four young working people making their way in 1920s London. The parallels with life in the metropolis today are poignant and it is fascinating to see location footage of the Underground network, old London pubs, department stores and of course the climactic chase through the Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea … Asquith had a remarkable ability to portray the lighter and darker aspects of life through staging and cinematography. He was aided by the superb and unusually good-looking cast of Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi as the nice young couple, with Norah Baring and Cyril McLaglen as the unluckier, troubled duo.

The print of Underground that will be shown at the Barbican is the product of many hours of restoration work by the BFI, using new, cutting-edge techniques. The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Timothy Brock.

To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to watch Underground at the Barbican Concert Hall, just answer this simple question:

  • Cyril McLaglen, who plays Bert in Underground, had an older brother who was also a film actor. What was his name?

Email your answer to by noon on Monday 26 September. The winner will be picked at random from the correct entries and emailed with the good news. Best of luck!

To find out more, and to book tickets, visit the Barbican website.

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